The rushing light struck the Dragon God like a lightning bolt.
Rin's bones rattled as the Archdemon let out an unmistakable screech of pain, so loud that the air itself trembled. True pain was no doubt a foreign sensation to the Monster occurring so rarely that the sound lacing its cry had likely only been heard once before—when Rin and Scirvir had run it clean through in the dwarven mines.
Its claws smashed into the ground as it stumbled, coiling in on itself as molten blood cascaded down from the train-sized hole in its body. The Archdemon leapt away and attempted to take to the skies on its damaged wings, only to topple over onto its side.
The world shook beneath Rin as the massive Dragon God fell. Thrown to the ground by the impact, she curled up, covered her head with her arms, and activated Reinforcement and the Regeneration spell while what remained of the chapel around her began to crumble and collapse from the tremors.
The magus screamed as something slammed into her from behind, white-hot agony lancing up her spine and flaring across her backside like a rolling flame as bones were crushed. But it was drowned out as stone, wood, concrete, and everything in-between fell around her like rain. Even more pain surged through her body as whatever had broken her back rattled as the world continued to shake, and crimson vomit clawed its way out of her mouth in a half strangled cough.
Rin kept her arms braced over her head until, finally, the shaking quelled. In the aftermath of the tremors that seemed to split the earth apart, the world seemed to settle into a sort of calm. The kind of calm that could only be found in the wake of a nuclear explosion:
Rin sucked down a breath and was sent into an instant coughing fit as the dust threatened to suffocate her while she felt her shattered bones struggle to snap themselves back into place. Whatever was on her back was still heavy enough that once either one of the spells she'd cast wore off, she'd be buried alive until she ran out of prana. Tears leaked out of her eyes as they clenched shut, whimpers escaping as she forced herself to move anyway despite the worsening pain it brought.
Her hand twisted itself behind her, every fiber of muscle and stretching tendon screaming for her to stop. She ignored them until she felt what had broken her back over the flaring nerves. It was wooden—a supporting beam that had collapsed over her, likely with stone adding to the weight from the rubble. Something she could clear away.
The magic came easily, she gripped the fireball that was like the molten core of the sun. The heat didn't harm her as it exploded, but the force as it reduced the charred wood to cinders and stone to gravel still tore through every fracture in her skeletal system and set alight every nerve as she was freed of the rubble. Rin then laid there and breathed slowly as her broken body stitched itself together again, ignoring the granite digging against her cheek and the smell of singed fabric.
Then her heart went still.
All because she felt the world rumble beneath her prone body as the dust shifted with the air as something moved. The smoke-filled sky was blocked from her view as the massive, horned head of the Dragon God rose once again. Its six eyes glowed like blood-red rubies and hellfire slipped out from between the cage of its teeth as it stared off in the distance.
Rin found enough strength to move her head, despite the agony it brought. She could barely make it out, but there was a distant white star that loitered close to the earth. Even though she couldn't see him, she knew that was where Shirou was.
The question of how he managed to find the strength to fire such a shot surfaced for a moment. But then the Archdemon began to move, casting its shadow over her as it lumbered towards him. The question then became a matter of how many times he could shoot it again until it finally caught up to him.
Her mouth opened, but what emerged was only broken croak. She wasn't even sure what it was she wanted to say. And it wasn't like he could hear her from this distance.
But she willed the Regeneration spell to work faster all the same.
Breath fled from Saber's lungs as the impact of her body cratered the wall she was driven into. She had been overwhelmed, their blades having clashed countless times now. Yet, instinct raised her arms and her sword despite that to deflect the thrust that followed up from the demonic blade that surpassed the speed of sound.
A sharp, blazing pain surged from where it parted her armor as the tip slid along until it hit the wall and caused fissures to spread out from where it pierced the dense marble like wet cardboard. She clenched her teeth and dropped her legs beneath her as the killing machine abruptly twisted the blade to claim her neck and the stonework itself exploded outwards.
Excalibur came around in an arch to cleave its legs from the knees, only pass through empty space as the Archdemon landed a safe distance away, its wings of soul-energy flaring out as it slashed with its blade and sent a soul-cutting crescent rushing towards her. It cleaved through the wall as she accelerated past it by a hair's breadth, getting within range again and pivoting to turn the momentum into extra force while she swung, only for the impact of their blades meeting to once shake her bones.
Her arms that strained to hold the blade-lock, screaming that they couldn't win in a clash of strength and threatened to give out. Blood leaked from where her armor had been parted, crimson staining the blue as a permanent reminder it could no longer protect her.
She saw it convulse as a plume of soul energy erupted from the grievous wound she'd inflicted beforehand.
"RRRAAAAHHHH!" Saber roared as she tried to push through its guard with all the strength she could bring to bear. But the False King itself promptly pushed her back in retaliation, its whole body carrying through the motion in a single burst of movement as the wings flared with its rising strength. "Nhh!?"
Saber swung Excalibur even as she was catapulted back, intercepting its weapon before it could follow through with timing bordering on near-precognition and the harsh ringing of striking metal-on-metal. Then she shoved her armored greaves into the floor to stall her flight, a furrowed trail of upturned stone left in the process. She reestablished her posture only to feel the very foundation of the castle rumble and the Dragon God's roar reverberated within the room, driving a dagger of fear directly into her heart.
The thought of Shirou and Rin flitted into her mind for a pause, only for her to drive them back in order to keep her focus on her opponent. She couldn't afford to be distracted by them. Not when a moment's distraction and the price would be her life with theirs to follow.
Liquid fire threaded Shirou's muscles. They burned like molten metal had spilled out of his circuits and splashed over every inch of they could. He trembled just standing there in the wake of the shooting star streaking across the city.
He heard the Archdemon's screech as static filled his vision upon loosing the arrow. His vision cleared in time to see it fall with a tremendous crash, whatever dust that had been left undisturbed despite its rampage prior now kicked up. For a moment he thought that the tower itself would lean under the weight of its collapse.
He hoped it had been enough. That the Archdemon would have been slain. That they could hurry to Saber's side. That they could return together.
Then his hopes were trampled underneath its massive claws.
Despite the gaping wound spilling so much blood that Shirou was sure the city could drown in it, the Archdemon got right back up again. Even striking it with an arrow designed to twist space itself hadn't been enough. Not to put it down.
Shirou could feel the moment its six, blood-red eyes fell onto him. They carried an enormous pressure about them that almost made his knees buckle, despite the massive distance between them.
How many shots would it take to bring the monster down?
Three more? Four?
Would he even last for that many?
The mass of scales moved closer, its massive stride swallowing the distance.
Closer, and closer.
So close now that Shirou could see how the almost molten lifeblood oozed from grievous wound, so hot that he could hear the air sizzling. The liquid flame choked the air with dark, heavy smoke and the acrid blend of burning rock as everything that came in contact with the blood was put to flame.
With no alternative, prana surged through the magic circuits that threaded Shirou's body and soul. Another copy of the legendary blade was projected into the world, resting above his open palm. Soul energy crackled to life inside and out, snapping and popping like tongues of electricity as it bled out of the sword while turning into an arrow.
The pain burned through him as it rampaged through the circuits and lashed out at his body. Pain great enough that it blanked his vision with a mesh of static for a second time. His mind felt like glass on the verge of shattering from the strain.
If you fall here, what will happen to them?
—and suddenly Saber and Rin flashed in his mind, slipping in through the cracks that were forming. They were counting on him. Both of them.
He became aware of himself falling and shifted his foot. He focused his mind, ripping away the static veil. It brought the world into view once more...
Just in time for him to see fire blooming behind the cage of the Dragon God's teeth. Seeing his arrow was ready, the Archdemon prepared to fill in the rest of the space between them with a stream of flame. It would reduce the stone caught in its path to slag and everything else would be scattered into fine ash.
Shirou nocked the arrow and took aim as the Dragon God breathed out an inferno. The world before him was swallowed by the fire as he released the taut bowstring. Then it was bleached out by a blinding white light that shot forth and met with the rushing firestorm.
Flames swirled as the arrow drilled forth and parted the stream like the Red Sea. But it failed to make it into the gaping maw of the Archdemon, rupturing halfway with a grand detonation that made the air itself a weapon. The force was so great that the shockwave cut short the infernal breath as the Dragon God reeled with a screech that barely made it over the howling air as Shirou struggled not to be blown off his perch.
The Archdemon shook its head and fixed its gaze upon him once more. Peeling back its lips in a snarl revealed flames already licking at its teeth through the gaps, as if it had the core of a sun trapped within its throat. In the end, there was likely no real limit to the amount of flames it could breathe, whereas the next arrow he fired would likely be his last.
Shirou gripped the haft of his bow in a white-knuckled grip. Producing the arrow for a second time had nearly broken his mind. The third arrow would have to be even stronger.
Even so, he knew that death was inevitable the moment he fired the first shot and drew the ire of the Dragon God to save the others. To become its target was to choose death one way or another. The only difference was that his mind would die before his body did, but as long as he managed to save the others, then what happened to him didn't matter.
He breathed in the scathing hot air as molten metal flowed through his spiritual veins, circuits spilling over as the soul energy gathered into his empty hand. The blueprints that represented the sword was already in place. He just needed to bring it out and make the change.
But then, as he endured the pain of projecting it for a final time, his hand seized up—
—and more memories came unbidden, the time he spent in the Nexus with the others slipping in through the cracks that had widened. The momentary glimpses of hope that were sparked in the weary souls when they looked upon the three of them. The hope they represented for a return to normalcy.
Hope that was to be snuffed out by a great roar that announced the end of his life. The horizon before him turned into a rushing ocean of flame. The Archdemon had let loose its fiery rage in earnest to snuff out the flea that had hurt it.
His seizing hand thrust forward towards the manifested wrath of the Archdemon of its own accord. And, in the next instant, the rushing flames flared brightly as they broke against an unyielding bulwark and parted around it on either side—
—leaving the flames to run over everything a world away from how muted the suffocating heat and roar of its rage were as the Archdemon's wrathful gaze turned wary in the face of a new target.
It was the Tower Knight. His massive shield was anchored in front of the building, the first layer of defense that never once yielded in life. The top-half of armor that had been engraved upon his very soul encompassed Shirou and wreathed his body in the white, luminescent fog that made up its essence as the rest encased the building.
The magus looked around his new surroundings, breathing harshly as his fracturing mind tried to work through what was happening. Then he felt the cracks in his mind being sealed shut by a gentle touch as he felt a pulse at his back. He turned his head, looking over his shoulder to the faintly glowing blade of Astraea.
It pulsed again. Her song a blend of pain, confusion… and reassurance. The feeling underneath it all went unspoken as the last of the fractures in his mind was sealed up, but it was as clear as a cloudless morning.
...You will not die.
His gratitude was a palpable thing as strength flooded his body once more, washing away the aches and pain as his mind cleared. His dream, and his duty now were one and the same. To fail now would be the death of hope itself for everyone who awaited an end to this nightmare and a return to normalcy, so he couldn't allow himself to fail.
If the power he possessed prior hadn't be enough then he would bring forth an even greater one. It was already there, ringing throughout his mind as the blade with the Soul of an Archdemon lent its power to him.
The answer to call it forth came to his mind.
He whispered the words that expressed the core of his own soul once more.
"I am the Bone of my Sword."
This was no normal Servant.
He was simply far too powerful to fit into any of the seven classes neatly. The sheer weight of his presence and power was something Archer could almost feel as if tangible—a static charge in the air, a suffocating miasma surrounding his red-eyed opponent.
Archer's eyes identified the weapons the moment they appeared. The records of legendary, heroic, demonic, and esoteric blades all found within his personal world coming to mind the moment they skimmed his vision. No Servant could summon this many true Noble Phantasms and discard them so easily and readily.
As Kanshou and Bakuya clashed with them, shattering as they deflected one fired weapon before immediately being reforged to deflect another, the Counter Guardian realized two things:
The first was that this would never end. He'd spied more than one blade that had been fired from the stock only to reappear later. Not duplicates, but the exact same blade that returned to whatever dimension he drew them from. It was reasonable to assume that as long as he willed it, it could simply reload and fire so long as he possessed the prana to do so.
The second was that, as powerful as this Servant seemed now, he was still holding back.
If one could simply throw away such powerful treasures as disposable tools … what weapons did he hold within his armory did he truly value? What could he call upon the moment he decided to stop holding back?
Archer took measure of the eyes that smoldered with a fury born of injured pride more than anything else. A common enough gaze he'd seen from opponents who believed it was beneath them to fight so seriously against a Magus who could only utilize Projection Magecraft. But never were their gazes so completely absent of fear.
This Servant knew for a fact that Archer stood no chance against him.
And Archer was mildly inclined to believe that would hold true if they both drew on the full measure of their strength. If this Servant ever felt truly pressured, he would stop holding back and then it would be over.
In that case, the outcome was clear:
A singular, decisive strike.
That was what it would come down to in the end. It was the key to victory and the boundary that marked defeat. Archer would have to put forth everything he could to bring down the Servant all at once, or he would be killed in retaliation.
And Ilya would follow him.
The pink glow of Rho Aias caught his periphery. Beyond stray shots aimed at him, nothing had come close to Ilya. Most likely he wasn't targeting her. He needed the vessel for the grail, and the speeds the blades were fired now could have obliterated her.
Not that he could do this forever either. His arms throbbed as the impact of each launched weapon rushed up them and shattered his blades as they deflected them. He fixed his eyes on the portals that shimmered like liquid gold, weapons appearing in their center for a split-second before rocketing towards him.
Determine their speed.
His arms moved without thinking. Without stopping. The projections shattering and reforming, becoming glimmering shards in the air around him.
Focus on the enemy.
His body dodged and weaved where his own blades wouldn't be in time. His hearing drowned in the sound of shattering glass and crashing steel. Time seemed to slow as his eyes kept themselves fixated on his enemy.
Plan for the inevitable escalation.
The portals that continuously rippled filled his vision. The pounding of his heart eclipsed the ambient sounds. The plan came together.
Be ahead of him. One step. Two. Five, Ten.
It would be close. But it was the only way to win.
Seize the next five seconds of survival and never release them.
Less than a second. The faintest window between himself and the enemy Servant. But Archer took it, rocketing forward with all the speed his reinforced limbs could give him. He closed the distance by nearly half in the time it took for the portals to reposition and fire.
He stepped low, ducking under the first shot. The married blade in his right hand shattered as he smashed aside a launched javelin. He threw its counterpart as he slid across the ground to avoid an axe, the whirling blade spinning like a Buzzsaw as it found a path towards the Servant that was unimpeded.
A look of disgust formed on the immaculate man's face as he sidestepped it, dodging the black blade.
Archer formed the white blade in his hand again.
The black blade circled back, twisting midflight and rushing towards the exposed back of his enemy. A look of annoyance flashed as the piercing red eyes turned away for just a moment at the whirling blade coming towards his back. A portal opened up behind him to counter the sneak attack.
Projected weapons appeared in the air around him and were launched towards the golden portals that were nearest to his enemy. Sword bullets that would clear the path. With Berserker's blade in his grasp second time, his limbs burning and muscles straining as they were Reinforced to their limit, Archer rushed in for the kill.
Red eyes returned as the black blade was shattered by a silver streak, the momentary distraction gone as the projected blades shattered the contents of the portals. Another moment. Another second.
Archer shrank the space between them with godspeed to deliver the fatal blow…
Then it appeared.
The moment Archer felt the shadow of death.
Another portal opened next to the Servant's outstretched hand.
Archer saw the beginnings of a hilt. His mind, his very soul, burned at the sight of it. A piercing, stabbing sensation was driven through his skull as his brain repeatedly failed to judge the concept of its creation.
That weapon had never been created.
That weapon was creation itself.
The one weapon Archer couldn't allow to be drawn, no matter what.
Archer dug in his heels, grinding his forward momentum to a complete halt as the space between himself and the Golden Servant was filled with golden ripples. Then, with all his strength, he hurled the weapon of the Mightiest Servant straight at his enemy only for a chain to emerge from the portal this time and tangle the massive weapon mid-throw as it wove through the gateways and closed in on him.
Archer extended his left arm forward as the chain ensnared it. His legs, chest and neck followed, the shifting chains going taut and leaving him immobilized. His right arm remained unsecured.
It was all he needed.
With a thought, the slab that was Berserker's weapon disappeared. The length of the chain that had stopped it went slack, allowing the red eyes that spoke of divinity to widen as they stared down at the tip of an arrow that crackled and swirled with power. The black bow filled his extended left hand, the bowstring pulled taut by his right hand.
It was too close to dodge. Too powerful to survive. He let loose the shot—
"Farewell, King of Kings!"
—and blinding white light swallowed the room while the very foundation of the mansion shook from the sheer force. Dust whipped freely as the walls threatened to crumble from the shot. It should have been a clean kill…
Yet the chains went taut once more as another length found its way to his right arm and left it bound. His limbs were stretched out as if he were to be drawn and quartered when the smoke cleared to reveal that the Oldest Hero in the world remained alive. Gone was his previous attire as he donned golden armor that had taken the full force of what would have been a fatal shot.
The only signs that it had done anything was the blood that trailed from the corner of the Servant's lips.
Despite lacking any pride, Archer found it within himself to smile.
That armor was the last thing he'd held in his armory. No more trump cards. No more tricks.
None but that weapon Archer could never allow him to draw.
"I am the Bone of my Sword."
Emiya's insanity finally rubbed off on me.
That was the only conclusion that she could reach as her trembling fingers scrabbled against the stone wall for purchase. Rin struggled to pull herself forward for the sake of chasing after the Dragon God. A suicidal task made harder when simply staying on her own two feet was a herculean task.
Regeneration was perfect in how it healed her. Torn tendons and ligaments were being stitched back together, broken bones snapped back into place, cellular deterioration and destruction undone as if it never happened. It was a miraculous mystery and she was fortunate to have managed to get her hands on it before they came here considering the number of times it saved her life.
But it worked slowly. Slow enough that, despite the pain receding bit by bit and making every movement marginally easier by an infinitesimal amount, she should be laying down. Really, she should be doing anything other than chasing the shadow of the Archdemon that blanketed a good portion of the city behind it.
She wasn't sure what she'd do when she got there.
Or if there was anything she could do.
I'll think of something, she concluded as a she spied a hellish glow coming from around the corner of the building ahead and could feel the heat coming off the monstrous Dragon God as fire slipped through its cage of teeth in the distance.
Then it breathed and swallowed the world ahead of her with an all-consuming fire.
The flames whipped the winds into a frenzy, super-heated air searing her skin and wrenching a cry out of her mouth as she shielded her eyes and ducked behind the stone wall. Blisters broke out across her exposed skin that was caught by the wind's touch until a deafening blast shook both heaven and earth. The Dragon God let out a screech of pain that left her ears ringing, the rumble of its staggered footfalls crunching into stonework and cracking the bedrock of the city's foundation.
The little luck she had found a stone building that could pass for intact and she sheltered herself within it, curling into a small ball as half of the capital was turned into a picture of Hell. The searing winds raging beyond the boundaries of the walls struck at the stones, baking them and threatening to turn her shelter into an oven…
That was when she felt a shift in the atmosphere. The soul energy that permeated the very land seemed to thicken, the draconic heat offset by an unearthly chill that seemed to tug on her very soul. Rin forced her heart to keep beating as she broke from her chosen cover and bore witness to the cause as she stepped past the threshold of the door.
It was Shirou. She could see him on the last remaining building in a stretch of land that consisted of molten slag. He was there, sheltered behind an ethereal shield being anchored to the ground by the ghost of a great knight.
Her body shuddered as a presence washed over her. She craned her head around to see that a phantom had manifested right behind her. The white, wispy, gossamer-thin fog that shrouded its translucent body wavered as if being coaxed into taking shape.
And it wasn't alone.
One after another they began to appear within the building and outside of it. Their ranks swelled until the numbers turned the city that had been devoid of life into a true city of a dead. And, unlike those that they'd seen so far, endlessly reliving their last, frenzied moments in battle, these…
These were aware.
They looked around each other in confusion, some staring at their hands while others at their surroundings. Others were even trying to flee from the monstrous Archdemon that snarled at the ghostly knight, the fear of demons engrained within their very souls.
The veil of life and death is thin here.
As an electrifying feeling coursed through her spine, she recalled the words Biorr had told her once before. For the souls of the dead to be visible, she realized that could only mean one thing as the world around her was drowned out by a white light.
The fires faded.
The buildings fell away.
The ruined streets vanished.
The land of Boletaria ceased to exist entirely.
In its place was a field of bone-white grass, with the taste of ash lacing the air. Swords were stabbed in the ground as far as the eyes could see, grave-markers that preluded the crypt-like ruins that loitered in the distance. The horizon that stretched beyond the ends of the world was bathed in a dull, grey fog that seemed to swallow everything else.
And in the center of it all stood the owner of this world—staring up at the massive, monstrous Dragon God from edge of a great lake of crystal blue waters.
His Reality Marble's changed, Rin realized. It was different in composition and depth, far stronger than it should have been with the power he possessed on his own. The answer as to why became clear as the souls of the dead began funneling into the Blueblood sword that was strapped onto Shirou's back.
It's Astraea doing after all.
Whatever else she might be, her soul was bound to that of a genuine Archdemon. Its appetite for souls would be unmatched and the sway she had over them would allow her to coax the soul out and draw them in. Unable to resist once she exerted her power, the very essence that composed them were used as fuel to sustain and reinforce this world.
The Dragon God let out a primal sound that was nestled somewhere between a hiss and a snarl as its bleeding, and torn wings were unfurled. Then it released a roar of fury that spread across the field of swords, each one reverberating from the sheer weight of it. The battlefield might have changed to one that tipped the scales in their favor, but the fighting was far from over.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, Rin reasoned to herself as she brushed the hilt of her own sword.
Shirou might not be using the souls of the dead as fuel consciously, but if she was going to do anything she couldn't pretend otherwise.
The wind howled across the barren desert of ownerless blades, beneath iron cogwheels that churned within the burning horizon as the scent of ash filled the air. The owner of this forge that stretched from one end of reality to the other stared down at the King of Heroes from atop a hill of swords and found it in himself to smirk. "Since you've shown me your treasures, it is only befitting that I present mine."
"So, this Reality Marble is the embodiment of your worth?" Crimson eyes spanned his surroundings as if taking in a familiar yet foreign sight, still draped in the air of arrogance that came as natural as breathing. But the mere dismissal that had been present in his gaze was gone now, even as he crossed his arms. "It's quite unsightly."
"Be that as it may, it is the only thing I possess as a Heroic Spirit," Archer risked a glance over his shoulder to see that Ilya was there. Her eyes were far more taken by the spectacle of his soul laid bare than the oldest hero in history. But as long as she was still safe behind the petals of Rho Aias, that was fine.
Steel-gray eyes set themselves back onto the enemy, now clad in gleaming, aureate armor. The defenses it possessed was no small thing, but it wasn't impenetrable while they were inside his world. Likewise, the chains that could bind even gods were little more than sturdy steel within his inner world.
No, the true threat was that thing that lingered within his arsenal. The impossibility born at the beginning of creation, the one thing that couldn't be reproduced. As there was no place in this world for that weapon, there existed no countermeasure within it that could oppose its full might once drawn.
So he would not let him draw that weapon.
Though his ego seems to be keeping it sheathed more than anything else, Archer recognized. Such was the pride of his opponent that he wouldn't draw his mightiest treasure for a nameless foe. Even if it meant using every other tool within his arsenal, that sword would be the very last one drawn.
"To present such a thing to me, a world of fakes, is a depth that even a cur would not sink." The blood-toned eyes narrowed in disgust as the King of Heroes raised his hand. The golden ripples began to spread out, creating an expansive array that encompassed his field of vision. "Begone."
The King of Heroes lowered his hand to signal the execution—
—and every sword meant to be fired was intercepted by a replica embedded into the ground. The sound of shattering steel ringing out as the forgotten swords responded to the command of the one who created the world they tread upon and shot themselves into the loaded barrels to rupture them from the inside out. The Golden Servant's eyes were left to widen as he was showered in gold and glass.
"Fakes they may be," Archer said, lips pulled back into a tight smile as he raised his arm. Swords appeared behind him out of thin air as the cogwheels churned faster to smelt the metal and shape the steel. "But within this world they have the same value as the original and can be replicated endlessly."
Replicas of the very same swords that had meant to be used as the tools of his execution were already off the production line and ready to go. Legendary swords. Demonic swords. Divine swords. Forgotten swords.
That the such forgeries of his treasures were reproduced without limit or effort, left the King of Heroes to bare his fangs and renewed the murderous fury that writhed in his gaze. "YOU…DAMN FAKERRRRR!"
He threw the Gates of Babylon wide open. By unlocking the vault in its entirety countless Noble Phantasms were instantly fired from innumerable portals from countless angles at Archer. And they were just as quickly crashed into by forgeries pulled from the desert, leaving the air filled with broken steel and glass.
Every other time he'd spoken the words that resonated down to his core, seeking to invert this realm that was his soul manifested and call it forth, Shirou Emiya was faced with an insurmountable obstruction. Every sense was dulled. Every memory hazy. His thoughts were left rancid and mired, as though they had been plunged into cold sludge while the seepage spilling through his brain matter.
But this time was different.
He could see the world around him. Feel the weight of the souls being impressed against his own. Think with an unmatched clarity.
His mind was clear for the first time.
Astraea chimed at his back, the bell-like sound echoing in his mind as the souls of the demons he'd taken into himself manifested. The beings that he had subsumed and broken down within his soul like a solute for their raw strength were extracted and took shape once more. Returned to a state of former glory, it would normally be impossible for him to control the beings that devoured souls of heroes.
But Astraea could.
A lesser demon could be made to kneel to a more powerful demon. Leash them and suppress their individual will. And within this realm that he claimed ownership over, there was no soul more powerful than the Archdemon bound to him.
He could feel that doing so disgusted her. Words couldn't describe the toll it took to further mire herself in the nature of the demon that had dragged her into the rot and ruined her and Garl. But, as much as it pained her, she would do so for him.
Sincere thanks was the only thing he had to offer her before he turned his focus solely towards the Dragon God that loomed over him.
The Archdemon of Stonefang looked down upon the treacherous Archdemon, the leashed lesser ones, and the upstart Slayer of Demons that dared to try and topple it, with the intention of destroying them all.
Another projection of Caladbolg was in his hand instantly. Every sword that he'd laid eyes on was within this world, so there was no delay whatsoever in calling it forth in less than the time it took to think. Power began twisting around the tip, a great eddy drawing in the soul energy permeating his inverted soulscape as Astraea offered it up.
The Archdemon was on him the moment it appeared, recognizing the danger it presented. It could rend through its scales and gouge out its heart where normal steel failed and weaker magics faltered. So, with a flap of its mangled wings and powerful legs, it lunged forward far faster than any being of such a monstrous size had any right to.
The shade of the Tower Knight advanced, taking point with shield in hand to intercept. The moment they clashed, the very world shook as the resulting shockwave threw Shirou off his feet and wrenched the breath from his lungs. He stumbled back, alive and unharmed as Astraea forced three of the demons to abandon their restored form and instead be used to temper his body.
The Maneater Demon bequeathed him with its monstrous strength and endurance. The Dirty Colossus left him feeling as though countless flies were buzzing within him, taking the place of his organs as they grew, bred, died, and multiplied where normal cells had been obliterated. And the Old Hero's soul left him feeling as though he was draped within a second layer of skin.
He wouldn't survive a direct assault from the Dragon God. But as he was now, the clashing of demons that would have killed lesser men in proximity would no longer spell death for him and he needn't worry about anything else. That meant he could focus on readying his arrow as he watched the unmatched might struggle to breach the unyielding aegis.
For all its size after being returned to its former glory, the Dragon God was several times the Tower Knight's size. The knight was still holding it off by some miracle, but the Archdemon still had one more potent weapon that could be used where strength couldn't. It wasted no time in opening its maw and letting loose a blaze of all-consuming flames in order to wipe away everything.
Dragonfire billowed out of its gaping maw and blanketed the Tower Knight as it rushed towards Shirou, only to be met with a wall of lesser shields called forth by the viscous mass that was the Phalanx. The infant demon soul's core pulsated as it threw Hoplites forth even as the fire slammed into the wall and began to melt away at it while the Tower Knight struggled to keep the foe's bulk back.
That was when the primal, living flame that was shaped by Dwarven beliefs leapt into the fray. The Dragon God might have been a wielder of flames that burned with a fury unmatched, but Flamelurker was born of flames and held prominence over even the mightiest of users. It lunged over the wall and then turned them against the Archdemon to smother it within its own flames.
In the absence of the smothering heat, the defensive wall that was Phalanx's army dissipated while leaving only the shell that was its main body behind. That core that shone with a luminous, pale blue light pulsated at a higher rate through the gaps. As if giving marching orders to be carried out by the Hoplites coming into existence around the domain that was his soul, javelins littered the sky as if they were fired like ballistae from the cancerous shield growths.
The black rain slammed into the Dragon God's frame as it was baked in its own flames, each one hitting with enough force that it sounded like bombs being dropped. They broke upon the scales and the shrapnel left plumes as they struck the ground. But there was no end to them as the velocity of each one chipped away at the target with the hopes of breaking through eventually.
Stealing its flames to turn against it. Matching its might to keep it at bay. Striking at its scales to chip away at its defenses. Using the power of all the Demon Souls that had gathered within a single noble soul, Astraea played the role of puppeteer and used the leashed demons to stop the Dragon God that stood alone in an effort to buy Shirou time to ready his killing shot…
The fact that it was working only served to further infuriate the Dwarven Deity.
To be challenged by inferior beings and assaulted was something it couldn't tolerate.
But for them to have the audacity to assume that they had it in check, to dare stand against it, to survive when it had sentenced them to death and their souls surrendered, only served to push its rage to the point where it boiled over and could no longer be contained.
The rage-fueled roar it released became a tangible thing as it snuffed out the cloak of flames that baked its scales and scattered the javelins that flew towards it, leaving them to smash into the gravestone of swords as it drew back on its hind legs and spread its mangled wings wide.
The Tower Knight was left looking even smaller as the Dragon God reared back with both clawed fists raised. The massive tower shield was propped up as a canopy as they then came back down. The boulder-sized fists met with the all but impenetrable shield once more and the world seemed to explode under Shirou from the resulting impact.
It would have swept him away along with the Flamelurker had the Phalanx not reformed their defensive shell around him. Cushioned within their gelatinous bodies, the viscous masses struggled to stay rooted in place as the subsequent roars of fury and blows of scales-on-steel jolted the ground beneath them.
Peering through the gaps in its shell that formed his final layer of defense, Shirou witnessed the infallible shield that had never once been broken in life crumple under the Dragon God's enraged blows. The steel splintered, cracks spreading wider as the Tower Knight struggled to simply remain upright. Once the strongest defense he had was obliterated, there would be nothing to stop it.
Electricity danced across Shirou's frame, scouring his skin as he compressed down the blade packed with as much soul energy as it could contain. The circuits that threaded his soul burned as the spiraled steel constricted and compressed. Forcing it to become a sleek, dangerously unstable arrow, he nocked it and took aim through the opening in the shell of shields at the Dragon God as the enraged Archdemon reared back to break through the cracked pile of steel.
Two souls moved at once.
The Tower Knight was unmade by Astraea's power as the arrow was loosed. No sooner than it had been ready to tear down the obstruction that stood between it and the cowering prey hiding away within the shell of the infantile demon, the Dragon God's vision was replaced with the spiraling storm of white-hot radiance that was Caladbolg. The timing was perfect.
Yet, the might of the Archdemon was not so easily overcome even with every advantage brought forth by Astraea and Shirou working in tandem.
The Dragon God fell back while its clawed hands whipped forward in an instinctive drive to survive, defying laws of physics to actually catch the drilling mass of contained energy that twisted even the fabric of this world within a world. A primal screech of pain followed, wrenched out as the spiraling energy ground away the scales, hide, muscles, and bones within its hands to keep its heart from being pierced. However, it couldn't contain the detonation that followed as it eclipsed everything in a rush of white and hurricane force winds.
Phalanx was ripped away from his body. The shields that formed its shell were pulled apart from the backlash while the magus in its core was jettisoned backwards head over foot, sent into a tumble. He toppled the gravestone of swords that were to his rear until he crashed into the lake behind him.
Half-lucid, he struggled towards the surface and breached the cloudy, crimson haze that his blood as it soiled the pristine water. Abandoning his broken bow as the tattered remnants of his cloak clung to his flesh, he clawed his way onto the shore while heavy coughs forced out the water that had gotten in his windpipe. He would have done nothing but lay there and fill his lungs with air, if not for the seething hiss and a heavy pressure that rattled his bones as fear crept up his spine.
He looked up to see that the Dragon God was still alive. Its hands were a ruined mess of torn flesh and charred sinew. Its molten blood sizzled and steamed upon hitting the ground, misshapen bone and blackened scales running up its forearms. Wounded in body and pride, its murderous gaze cast a weight upon the battered form of the magus.
Taking a deep breath, Shirou forced himself to rise against the pressure pressing down on him. As long as the enemy was still standing, he couldn't lay down himself. He fought against the weight of the six ominous eyes and raised his outstretched hand before reciting the words so he could continue to fight. "T…ra...ce…"
The Archdemon lunged for him once more before he could get the words out, a mangled fist raised to snuff out his life. Countless shields formed a wall and the Tower Knight's shade anchored it in place with his own battered guard. A storm of javelins joined by a maelstrom of blades surged towards a target that was impossible to miss.
The desperate attempt to stave-off the inevitable amounted to nothing.
The javelins and swords were smashed. The shields were broken through. The Tower Knight and Phalanx were obliterated. Everything that Astraea could put between it and him was toppled as the unstoppable force rushed straight towards the magus already swaying on his feet.
Her scream in the back of his mind was the last thing he heard before it connected.
"This was unexpected."
Zouken could admit that to himself, having seen every Holy Grail War play out since its creation. Despite his brain rotting and knowledge deteriorating with the passing of years, he recalled every Servant that had been called forth to seek out the Holy Grail. And out of all of them, none had surpassed the one called forth in the previous war by the Tohsaka.
The Golden Servant, possessing the greatest treasures in the world. Zouken had taken that into account and lured him out here for the express purpose of obtaining the Vessel despite his limited tools on-hand. Yet, once more the Tohsaka surprised him with a nameless Archer who possessed a means of challenging the so-called King of Heroes.
With the Vessel and the two Servants drawn into the confines of a Reality Marble, the magus considered the circumstances as he impassively stared at the boundary that was impenetrable to his scrying. Then he turned his head ever so slightly to address the shadow of a Servant at his back. "Assassin, get ready to capture the Vessel once the Reality Marble has been destroyed."
"You presume the Archer will fail?"
It was already a point he'd considered. "The Archer's possession of such an ability was an unexpected factor, I will admit. And so long as the Vessel remains his Master and provides prana, the Servant could keep this world up indefinitely. But the Golden Servant possesses a Noble Phantasm that can destroy such a thing. It will be drawn out and the Archer will die, leaving her defenseless."
There was no doubt in his mind that would be the outcome. Either Gilgamesh would overwhelm him through his normal abilities, or the nameless Archer would corner him and force his hand. A cornered beast would always fight back tooth and nail to survive, same as any man feared death and would cling to whatever form of life they could.
For one whose legend involved seeking out immortality because he feared death, it was inevitable what would come to pass. That weapon would be drawn from the deepest depths of the Gate of Babylon and used. The Archer would die.
True Assassin acknowledged the order and prepared to move—
—when the two turned to the sky at the shout and found themselves staring up at a blue-clad warrior, arm chambered as the crimson spear he wielded distorted the air from the dense cloak of magical energy that evaporated the falling snow. Bearing fangs with blood-red eyes that seemed to dance in the light of a hunt, the rabid hound finished his howl with a smile.
The Soaring Spear of Death came crashing down upon them with an explosion that shook the forest and scattered the clouds above.
He's not dead, Rin told herself as she watched the Dragon God punch through every layer of defense and every Demon called forth to protect Shirou. The broken shields, javelins, and bone-colored ground erupted the moment it made contact
The Reality Marble is still intact. He's not dead.
Logic grounded out the fear that bounced around her skull as she forced herself to turn away from what state that he must've been in. Even if alive, he was no doubt a broken and battered thing, easily killed if she didn't hurry. So she pushed the concern to the back of her mind, focusing on what she had to do before they both ended up dead and their souls consumed.
Prana coiled throughout her body as she harvested the tangible energy that permeated the air. The souls of dead Boletarians pressed against the gossamer-thin fabric of this world were easy enough for Astraea to enthrall, ensnare, and consume in order to fuel Reality Marble's manifestation and everything within it. She could tap into that same fuel source for her own uses, her body and circuits acting as a conductor to direct that energy into the Stormruler.
Rin was going as fast as feasibly possible when the sound of bubbling water stirring up the lake drew her eyes towards it.
The waters, pure and crystalline, were frothing as something massive was surfacing judging from how it was being displaced to the point of spilling over the edges.
The Dragon God shot its massive fist towards the water to crush whatever it was, only to abruptly hiss as it withdrew its mangled limb. The exposed flesh, muscle, and scales were all searing as wisp of smoke wafted as though it had been burned, while a faint, golden light was in the center of the rising lake.
Rin recognized the presence of the light. It was something that was omnipresent within this domain. Something that had always been there, from the very start, but always out of view,
The Archdemon glowered at the radiance. Its lips curled back as it roared in defiance of that light and its hallowed presence. It began to stomp into the lake with the full intention of snuffing it out entirely with its full might. Then the shining radiance turned into a daystar nestled at the center of the lake, and the Dragon God did the one thing she never expected…
The light had turned into Demon's bane, scales and hide blackening as if it was pressed against a brilliant sun. It hurriedly retreated from the center of the lake where the light was strongest.
And in its wake, stirring up the waters like the ocean waves in a storm, Rin saw the core of this world wash up on lakeshore like a piece of driftwood.
Shirou was still alive. Still moving. Forcing himself to his feet one more time, swaying like one of the soul-starved husks rising from dormancy, he slouched upwards to reveal he was shrouded in a misty veil that was akin to a silhouette of a man.
The Blind Demon, Rin realized as the outline of the Old Hero that had fought against Berserker could be made out in hazy detail. Somehow its soul had wrapped around his body to shield him from the fatal blow, saving his life. Now that its work was done, its ethereal form shattered into grains of ghostly sand.
The Dragon God snarled, wounded in body and pride but still determined to win.
The Blueblood Sword consumed ever more souls to prolong the inevitable.
Rin Tohsaka struggled just to keep up.
The battle between the Servant of the Sword and the False King was nearing its end.
When their swords clashed, the muscles in her arms throbbed and jolted. When it brought raw strength down upon her, the bones in her legs trembled as the marble beneath her cracked further from the force driving her down.
Her body began to reach the threshold of exhaustion, pain mounting up as her mind tried to push it away.
The world around her shook. It could have been beyond the walls of the castle or it could be simply from the castle itself not being capable of withstanding their clash.
The howling of the wind could have been from a gale slipping through the entrance or the hissing of the soul energy that was leaking from the vessel as the pressure increased with its performance.
There were scant few times that she had been so taken in a battle. Memories that brought her back to the battlefield where the corpses of friends and foe laid around her. The one battle where she remembered feeling something like this as the dance of sparks and ringing steel consumed her awareness…
Then it happened.
Loose gravel slipped under her foot, marble pounded so thoroughly by a stomp or a swing that it had lost most of its form. A simple mistake that lasted not even a second and was immediately corrected. Something that would have gone unnoticed in any other situation.
The killing blow came then. Faster than the eyes could track, the False King swung with all its might and pushed through her guard to deliver a monstrous blow that knocked her sword out of the way and allowed the tip to cleave through her armor, rending a bloody score through the flesh beneath it as she was launched away.
She hit the ground with a resounding crash before her body bounced on impact, a crimson stain marking the spot before her back met with the Boletarian throne. Saber forced her eyes that had closed on impact to open. The Archdemon was in front of her with its blade raised, ready to kill.
Strength born from sheer desperation surged her limbs, a fleeting thing like flickering embers on the verge of sputtering out. Her empty hand resting on the arm of the throne gripped the snarling wolf's head and snapped it clean off.
Clenching it in her fist, she swung at the monster, bringing the chunk of marble stone right across the monster's face. The decorative head turned to stone dust on impact as the Beast reeled.
No time to think. No time to get her footing for a killing blow. She could only act before the moment ended, so she brought Excalibur down with a maddened swing and a desperate cry on her lips.
The False King's sword arm was hacked off at the elbow in a flash. The severed limb flew off before hitting a column and breaking apart into green wisps of unbound energy as Saber swung her leg back and chambered her sword. Then, without any hesitation, she drove the blade of her sword straight through its chest.
The Archdemon ceased functioning. No false breath. No movement.
Is… it over? Saber wondered as her breath came out pained and ragged the flickering embers of strength finally smoldered out and were replaced with pain as blood streamed from her wound. She clutched the gaping opening through the steel, huddling over and gasping for breath. But she could feel her core as a Servant was still intact and she could endure the pain.
Thus, her concern turned to the other two who had been left to their own devices against the remaining threat. I have… to hurry—
Her thoughts froze as an insidious, dreadful feeling washed over her. Slowly she raised her head from the ground to see that white flames danced around the remaining arm of the killing machine; rushing towards her. As its harsh glow eclipsed her vision, the face it wore now seemed to be a mirror of her own—only twisted in rage with green eyes streaming with tears of betrayal.
Shirou's eyes nearly rolled out of his skull as he forced them open, only for his whole world to turn white.
Everything hurt as he struggled to move his arms, feeling the shore beneath his body. The moment he tried to force his body upright, a crawling, clawing nausea worked its way up his throat and out of his mouth. It was a pulped mess of insectile viscera that had once been his inner organs, remnants of what couldn't be cannibalized by the insects that had taken their place.
Blood trailed from a wound to the head as he stood, crimson dotting the ground. Every breath he took was wheezed and raspy. Pain threaded every fiber of his being, nerves alight and screaming for him to just lay down and accept death.
He stood up.
Even if it was all meaningless in the end, Even if he was just prolonging the inevitable, as long as it bought Tohsaka and Saber a single second of survival he would stand up as many times as he had to.
Even if all his life amounted to was a mere fraction of a second, he would keep fighting.
He had to; in order to remain himself.
The moment he rose, he felt the Dragon God's gaze fall onto him. The pressure and weight of its gaze and malice were oppressive. It was likely because his knees were locked into place that he didn't outright buckle under it entirely.
Raising a shaking hand towards his enemy, lightning crackled along his palm. But the sparking, crackling energy that would be woven into a blade and twisted into an arrow slipped from through the cracks that had formed. His mind was breaking under the strain of it all.
Astraea's distress at his mind and body breaking managed to trickle in from the back of his thoughts where she resided, the only oasis of relief to be found within the pain that ravaged his body with every conscious second. The sword on his back vibrated as she used what power she could to try and mend his broken mind and body, in an attempt to compensate for the damage.
The fact that it was wounded, half of its face a mass of melted scales meshed against singed bone, didn't escape Shirou's notice. He couldn't recall when it happened or if he'd even done it. The memory just wasn't there.
"Nnngh…" A scraping, raw sound clawed its way out of his throat as nails of agony stabbed his arms from the inside out as prana flowed through the circuits lining them as he forced out the shape of a blade.
It wasn't Caladbolg. He didn't have the strength anymore to summon a weapon that could twist space, nor charge it.
The Jeweled Blade was near-worthless here. Nearly three-and-a-half feet long from pommel to tip and razor thin, even if it could force its way through the gaps in armor those scales were another story. It wouldn't so much as scratch them, let alone bypass the muscles beneath to strike the vitals.
Both the Dragon God and Shirou knew that it was nothing more than a token resistance.
The owner of a world of endless swords simply refused to die without one in his grasp.
I will not allow this!
And Astraea ripped away from the fetters she'd shackled herself to, bringing forward the might of the dead under her thrall. A great swell of souls, the harvested dead of Boletaria that had been funneled into her vessel and the world itself, came shooting out like an geyser of soul energy that caused the entire world to tremble…
No. The world was breaking under the force of it.
His Reality Marble was being torn apart at the very foundation. From earth to sky it began fracturing like glass as the ethereal avatar of the fallen maiden guided the torrent of raw souls to hold off the Dragon God's assault. The mass of souls reached out, countless grasping and cloying hands trying frantically to rip and tear at one Archdemon at the behest of another.
The souls of ordinary men were meant to be nothing but fodder to the demons, let alone the Dragon God. But, as if those countless hands had fingers of razor-sharp blades and the grip of giants, they punctured its very soul. Luminous argent cracks spread out as the Dragon God very being came under assault.
It screeched at the invasion, the defilement, the power of Astraea trying to overtake it. Then it drew out the primal fire from deep within as those very same flames slipped through the cracks in gouts as they forced away the clawing hands before emerging from its broken maw to battle the onrushing surge with an unbearably hot flame.
Shirou watched as the wellspring of souls competed with the flames for dominance, only for the ethereal avatar of Astraea to weave herself around him as if to shield him with her own soul. Not a moment later the flames won out. Dragonfire bathed the area until the flames met the lake and covered the fading world with thick steam that seemed lined with gold.
Then the roar of the flames died out with a screech of pain from the Dragon God as his Reality Marble crumbed around him in the aftermath of the fire storm. The steam thinned. The soul of Astraea remained interposed between the boy forced to prop himself up with the Jeweled Sword to remain standing and Dragon God that was hunched over and wheezing.
Its wings were shredded. Its face half-melted. Its clawed hands a mass of broken bones, torn muscles, and charred meat. The cracks that formed in its scales had been invaded by the steam, scalding it inside out.
Yet it refused to be brought lower than these two. It refused to fall before a human whose world around them fell to pieces. Nor the maiden whose soul was little more than a wisp, gossamer thin and on the verge of fading away—
"WILL YOU JUST DIE ALREADY!"
—and standing on the ash-colored hill to the west that was crumbling with the horizon as the buildings that composed the empty capital came into view, Rin brandished her own blade. The crystal that composed it crackled with an upswell of soul power. Creating a second star on the horizon like Shirou had with Caladbolg
She swung; The blade shattered in her grasp. A brilliant white light eclipsed the collapsing reality and swallowed it all whole.
Excalibur slipped from her grasp and clattered onto the broken floor as Saber's body went limp the moment the ghostly, flame-wreathed hand plunged through her armor and chest seamlessly to twist at the very essence of her being.
Her strength vanished, drained out of her as the flames began to wash over her body from her core. The flames coiled around her, taking away the warmth of life and leaving her feeling cold as they flowed back into the False King. The gaping wound to its chest began to stitch shut and its severed arm began to regenerate, bit-by-tattered bit in the shade of flickering white flames.
It's draining my soul? That horrifying thought would have been bad enough until she felt the stirring Archdemons within her. The greater demons that had been keeping themselves in check to avoid being made to bow to one another were cowing as they were being taken into it as well.
She choked on the horrifying realization. Her own death would not be the only consequence of allowing her guard to drop at the very end. No, this killing machine would emerge unscathed—if not stronger from all the souls that the demons had taken into themselves prior to their defeat.
Even if Shirou and Rin survived the Dragon God, they would never be able to contend with this monstrosity. This amalgam of Archdemons in a single vessel, empowered by the soul of a Servant with a magic core that constantly produced magical energy.
It would be unstoppable.
I… cannot fall here… Her hands shook as she forced them to rise, barely able to paw weakly at the False King's forearm as shadows danced along the edge of her vision. Digging as deep into the whatever well of strength she could, she tried to push her body free of its grasp even as it proved to be as impossible to stop the siphoning of her soul. Not… like… this…
In the end her vision began to close in, the darkness eating away at the world as everything was taken from her. Her heartbeat slowed to a dirge, struggling to keep blood pumping through her body. Even that pittance of strength she found to paw in defiance of death faded and her hand fell to her side limply as the last thing she heard was a deafening, death throe that made the entire throne room shake before the world beyond fell silent again.
Then… something slammed into her from behind like a comet and wrenched out another gasp, forcing her to breathe and her eyes to snap open. Something hot and furious, a raging inferno, burrowed into her and scorched every inch of her body with raging fire.
Magical energy surged through her circuits like magma flowing through the earthen veins beneath a volcano. The overflowing heat seared the air as crackling, red tongues of energy shot out of her body.
She felt her left hand grip the False King's forearm hard enough to crack the facsimile of bones within it and her face twisted into a mask of fury before she brought both of her metal greaves up to stomp on its chest. She felt its frame crumple before its arm was torn from its socket as the rest of its body plowed into the wall at the far end of the throne room with a bloom of stone dust and broken masonry to obscure it.
Endless rage clouded her vision, leaving it red as she hunched over the ground. Such malevolence went beyond the scope of mortals, such fury enough to crush the soul of a man. It was the essence of an Archdemon—the Dragon Demon's Soul. Somehow it was synchronizing with the magical core from the Dragon's blood she had flowing through her, overclocking it to the point of generating ludicrous amounts of power.
She gripped the limb still wedged in her chest with both hands and squeezed. The entire thing shattered with the sound of breaking glass, leaving unblemished flesh and reformed armor.
Her gaze met the unchanging expression of the False King as the killing machine emerged from the wall. Its chest now had webbed cracks running through where she'd kicked it, motes of soul energy spilling out from it. She reached down to reclaim her holy blade and stomped the ground to rocket herself at it with a roar and sweltering magical energy. "EX—"
Lacking arms and its body leaking soul energy, nothing could be done to stop the red shooting star that came hurtling towards it, a tail of magical energy rolling off her body as the fae-forged sword radiated golden light within the center from the excess magical energy driven into it.
In less than a tenth of a second, she whirled around and swung her weapon into its body with the words of the King of Knights. "—CALIBER!"
Its body broke apart entirely as blade wreathed in the hopes of man broke through the Archdemon forged in the image of a ruler.
In a flash of golden light that utterly destroyed the Monster and everything behind it, The False King was obliterated as nothing remained except the fleeting motes of soul energy.
It was gone and immediately, Saber began to struggle to rein in the Dragon God's soul and the power coursing through her. She focused on quelling her frantic breathing, slowing her racing blood that felt like fire threading her muscles, and easing her nerves that were still anticipating a fight…
That was when the room began to glimmer with starlight.
The hilt shook in Rin's grip as she stumbled through the beaten roads of the dead capital, devoid of the undead and their souls alike. The ancient blade that was Storm Ruler had been reduced to little more than a jagged, shorn point that was barely the length of a dagger. She wasn't even sure why she was still holding onto it, outside of the fact that she couldn't seem to remember how to unclench her fist.
The heat from the aftermath of the Dragon God's flames still baked the streets and smoke continued choke the blue sky above them as she focused on simply putting one foot in front of the other. The absence of the mountain-sized corpse of the Archdemon made it at least feasible for her to find Shirou…
If he's still alive… She shook her head as she staggered along to the sound of the crackling flames, splintering wood, and crumbling stonework of the dying city. No, he's alive. I haven't given him permission to die.
He was alive.
She wouldn't accept any other outcome as she walked for… however long it was. Time had long since lost its meaning in the lull after the battle, the fading adrenaline leaving her to walk listlessly towards the barracks where she'd last seen him while clutching the jagged, broken remnants of the blade.
Finally, after minutes—or perhaps hours—she reached the building that was left in the middle of a scorched and blackened hellscape. Sheltered by Tower Knight's manifestation, it was the epicenter of where he manifested his Reality Marble—the literal center of the world.
He had to be here.
He had to be.
Her legs burning with a rolling agony robotically moved up and down as she climbed the stairs at a snail's pace. Her body pleaded with her to just stop moving. Honestly, she wasn't even sure how she made it to the roof—only that she did.
And that he was there.
Shirou was lying on the top of the stone roof. His body was splayed face-down on the ground while caked in blood and a tattered cloak. He wasn't moving, even as she stepped closer.
Her legs give out when she finally reaches him, her knees hitting the stone roof as she reached for his shoulder and mustered whatever strength she could in order to roll him over. Tears stung at her eyes as her muscles refused, arm trembling in either exhaustion or fear at what she'd find if she turned him over. Then she bit down on her lower lip and forced her hand that was still clutching the remnants of her own sword to open and let it clatter to the ground as she used both to force him to turn around.
"E-Emiya…" Her voice croaked as she forced out his name. He looked pale
He wasn't moving
"Get… get up…"
He didn't answer her.
Her eyes stung as she recalled the trials that she waded through to get to this point. The ambush of the soul-starved and dragons, the dead prince and crumpled form of Biorr, and now this. He…
He had to be alive…
"Emiya, wake up!" Her fist came down on his chest, thumping against it. There was a faint heartbeat. He wasn't dead if his heart was still beating. Telling herself that, she hit his chest again. "Wake up, Shirou!"
When there still wasn't a response, she felt heat stirring in her chest and prickling behind her eyes as something scalding trailed down her cheeks. His body was still alive. But what if his mind was….
No. Her gaze narrowed as she looked down to the thing that hung from his back, the soul that touched his mind even when her words wouldn't would reach him. Pulling her hand from his chest, she grasped the sword that that housed the soul of the fallen maiden, uncaring if the blade tore into it like it had everyone else who'd tried. "Wake him up!"
There was no response from the weapon either.
"I know you can hear me!" Rin shouted at the Blueblood Sword. "Wake him up!"
Rin was expecting anything but the faded, distant whimper that was so soft that it could be drowned out by the whisper of a breeze as a response. The image of a small flame flickering and on the verge of being snuffed out came to mind. In this place, where the veil between life and death had been stretched thin to point of breaking, would it be a surprise that a soul-bound weapon would be dying as well?
Out of prana, out of spells, out of strength, for the first time in a long time, Rin didn't know what to do…
The floor at Saber's feet that glimmered like starlight stretched out an endless expanse.
It was a realm she had been to before, the place where the Archdemon souls dwelled within her. The Maiden in Black had brought her to this place in an attempt to quell the soul of the first Archdemon that had tried to destroy her from the inside out.
Yet, demonic souls that would be rampaging and thrashing against one another in an effort to claim dominance were…
The silence was haunting. Unsettling. Unnatural in a sense that left her instinctively on edge, sweat rolling down her brow as she fixed her gaze on the Archdemon Souls that had taken root within her.
The Silver Demon—a knight that stood with its sword resting before it, its presence in her mind rigid and stalwart like steel.
The Latria Demon—a formless, nebulous yellow cloud of gas that was hatred and avarice distilled, its very presence rubbed across her thoughts like static across her skin.
The Storm King Demon—a whale-sized creature of the tempest seemed to passively loiter in the vastness of her soul, a sloth and lofty weight.
The Dragon God Demon—a seething, searing presence akin to a fiery mountain that loomed over them all, raw disdain and pressure pushing down upon her.
Four beings that were beyond human comprehension were all being subdued by the mere presence that had taken root in the center of her soul. The False King, the Archdemon shaped in the image of a ruler, the killing machine that existed only to carry out a harvest of souls. Despite her holy blade obliterating its body, its soul itself seemed to be… different.
Then it opened its eyes and its gaze settled on the Silver Knight.
That one word broke over her mind and body like a thunderous wave. It was a command that was absolute. Implacable and uncompromising.
The Silver Demon fell to one knee without a moment's hesitation, submitting without question and wordlessly swearing fealty.
The False King's gaze then turned towards the Latria Demon.
There was a shriek across her mind, raw hatred and jealousy turning the field of stars into a bloody red expanse. The very landscape of her soul was shrieking and roiling in disgust at this thing that was anathema to all. But, with a gesture of its hand, the red dissipated as the inhuman rage was caged.
The Archdemon's essence was crushed and contained—subjugated.
The Storm Demon fled rather that submit or be caged, its voice coming out as a screech of terror that echoed as it delved into the deepest depths in an instinctive drive to escape.
The False King paid it no mind as it turned its gaze to the Dragon God.
The single command was more demanding in tone than the previous two times, likely because of the role its strength played in the destruction of its physical form. But the Dragon God refused to be cowed by the display it had put on or submit. In the wake of being commanded, the Dragon God seemingly braced itself against whatever force was trying to assert dominance.
"You. Are. Mine."
It roared in defiance of the claim and flames licked at the Archdemon's maw as its powerful muscles locked in place, readying to incinerate everything. That ended the moment the False King raised its hand and the essence of the Silver and Yellow Demons converged before forming bands that lashed out. Like great iron chains they coiled around the Dragon God, muzzling its maw and forcing it to bow down in obedience as its own essence was siphoned and stolen.
Servants. Slaves. Weapons"
In that moment, it was clear that it was beyond any other demon that had roamed these cursed lands. It was a being that was created to stand above the other Archdemons combined, to dominant them all. If all the demons existed for the purposes of harvesting souls, then it existed to take into itself all of them.
No sooner than that realization came to Saber's mind did its gaze fix onto her.
It reached out for the soul of the one that destroyed its body.
She tried to fight and found her arms refused to rise up in defiance.
She tried to retreat and found her legs refused to move an inch.
She tried to scream and found she had no voice.
"You are -All- mine."
"Looks like you really aren't that easy to kill," Lancer said as he touched down on the rim of crater where his spear rested. The very same spot that Assassin once occupied. That one wasn't so lucky. "You can't really be considered a human at this point, can you?"
The answer he received came from countless buzzing insects that littered the surrounding trees beyond the range of the blast crater as Zouken Matou stepped out from the shadows. His wrinkled face was furrowed as he spoke. "I had thought that the death of Kotomine would have removed you from the war. But it seems you've found a new Master."
"I wasn't that fond of the way he did things to start with." The Servant of the Lance extended his hand and the weapon flew from its perch into his grasp. "But now I can cut loose, right after you're dealt with."
"I have more pressing matters to deal with than entertaining a rabid hound. Remove yourself from my sight, and I will consider dealing with you las—"
The words died as a blood-red streak plowed through his skull, leaving a visceral smear to paint the bark and grass nearby as Lancer stood in front of the upright corpse, his arm still outstretched from where he'd swung his spear. No sooner than that did the body swell and burst into a collection of man-eating insects, claws and fangs as sharp as blades immediately rushing towards him. They vanished with a second swing, hard enough that the wind pressure alone crushed their exoskeletons and scattered their remains to dust.
"I'm not one to be underestimated, worm." The spearman's voice came out cold and low. "Tricks or not, my spear will find that rotten heart of yours eventually. So why don't you stop hiding and save us both the trouble?"
The buzzing that filled the air from the countless insects that laid in waiting vanished all at once, leaving a haunting silence in their wake. For a moment, Lancer presumed that he had run off and fled like the scurrying worm that he was, clinging to life rather that facing death in battle. Then he felt an instinctive warning to move and leapt backwards, fast enough to clear the opposite side of the crater in a heartbeat as a tenebrous bubble engulfed the ground where he had been.
Lancer readied his spear as thick shadows stretched out and bled from the surroundings…
The song of steel rang out as blades clashed within the boundaries of Unlimited Blade Works.
Archer wove through the hail of blades and ringing steel as he rushed for King of Heroes, married blades in hand as he filled them with magical energy. The Gates of Babylon had been thrown open in full and golden ripples appeared to bar his path with every step, but they were destroyed as his own swords launched themselves into the gateways the moment they opened. Once the first pair of blades were charged, Archer then threw the white and black blades out to the side as a pair of portals appeared to his left and right before he called forth a second pair and threw them ahead while he kept moving forward.
The first set of thrown blades deflected the weapons that had been shot out of the two portals in from the left and right, plumes of dirt erupting from where they landed. The second set whirled towards Gilgamesh's unprotected head, the spinning blades getting within a foot before a set of portals opened and spears erupted from the opening to shatter them as they rocketed towards the Counter Guardian who had a third pair of married blades in his hands.
Those weapons were likewise destroyed as their counterparts speared down from the sky and left broken steel and sparks in their wake as the first set of thrown blades flanked Gilgamesh. Angled by the previous set and obscured by the dirt veil that had been thrown up as they were drawn in by the third, they should have been able to ensure a clean kill as the King of Heroes' enraged gaze never left Archer's steel-toned eyes. But without even sparing them a glance, those blades were destroyed as well by exotic blades that emerged from a pair of ripples in space while Archer entered into melee range.
He forced magical energy into the third set of married blades, using Alteration to elongate the blades and leave spikes erupting from the backside like jagged wings as he swung them down. The rattle of chains followed as they were caught by a length of divine fetters running from another set of portals.
As he felt more portals forming around him, their intrusion upon the world of his soul, Archer dismissed the blades with a cartwheeling leap. Twisting his body to slip through the metal web the chains wove while readying his bow and arrow in an instant, he fired through a gap in the chains. The arrow was sent streaking through the narrow opening straight between the pair of crimson eyes.
A shield of magic snapped into existence right before it could connect. The air in front of Gilgamesh refracted the light like a prism, splitting off into a shock of colors as the fired arrow was sent hurdling off in the distance. All while he reached for a portal that appeared to his right and housed the sole sword that wasn't a part of this world.
I can't let him draw that weapon!
Archer's hand stretched forward as dozens of blades that were several stories tall sprung into existence above Gilgamesh and hurled towards him. The golden portals appeared and fired their payload, only for blades to come crashing in from all angles to shatter each one so they were unimpeded. In the end, the King of Heroes was forced to dodge.
And it made him furious. "You would dare to make a King move!"
Archer landed, readying to move in with another pair of married blades. But before he could take a single step, a chilling sensation threaded his Reality Marble. It seemed to wash over them all as the burning horizon that marked the boundary between his soul and the outer world was slowly being encroached upon by fog.
A deep, colorless fog.
Shirou found himself standing in the throne room.
His sight was clouded as though he was trapped in a dense fog. His hearing was muddled as though he was underwater.
It was an out-of-body experience of some kind that brought him to the throne room, a tugging sensation dragging him through the veil.
And he wasn't alone.
Souls littered the dense fog, far and few between them with their silhouettes faint as they were all drawn towards what awaited them at the end…
In that instant he felt a strong pulse wash over him. His legs stopped moving, the irresistible pull held at bay. His thoughts sharpened, the dulling mist thinning. His senses returned and brought clarity.
That was when he spotted a sight that drove a stake through his chest.
Excalibur laid discarded on the ground. Tossed aside like refuse and left lying amidst the rubble. The holiest of swords lay abandoned, something that was so unfeasible that his mind couldn't grasp such a thing as he turned towards the epicenter of the room where the souls were begin drawn into like a whirlpool.
It wasn't Saber that stared back at him.
The moment their eyes locked there wasn't a doubt in Shirou's mind that it wasn't her. The eyes may have been hers, but the warmth and valor were long gone. Instead there was only a cold disdain for life and an insatiable hunger as the faint souls that were drawn into the pull flowed into her body.
The voice was clear, yet foreign from the others that had touched his soul. Not Astraea. Not the Maiden in Black. The warning was clear.
Death was the only thing that awaited him if he run away.
Yet, he couldn't run. He couldn't leave Saber like this. Not even as the thing that wore her face manifested a wicked-looking blade in its grasp and brandished it towards him.
In the next moment he was pulled away. His very essence ripped from the spot as the blade that had been swung cut through the fog left in his wake instead. Unable to resist whatever had snatched him away this time, he could only watch Saber's body grow distant as he was taken far beyond its reach.
Stolen memories told of another world.
Another realm that flourished with the living.
In the wake of that knowledge the monster that housed the power of multiple Archdemons within it severed the fabric of reality stretched thin by its mere existence with a single swing of its sword.
All to fulfill the purpose of its existence:
Bring more Souls.
I'm about 99% sure that my beta, Born of Prayers wants to kill me til I die from it.
This chapter was a lot of work and he definitely deserves a lot of credit.
I said last chapter that there was only one left, plus epilogue after this, I might have to amend that statement. There will likely be two chapters, though one will be significantly shorter than the other.
Anywho, Read and Review pls, this was a monumental pain in the ass to get through, and I'd love to hear if it was worth the wait.