It had been a day, or perhaps longer, since the group who would stand against the colorless fog and the demons had departed to kill the last Archdemon.
The residents of the Nexus were all sleeping in their cots when the candles began to flicker and die, snuffed out by the candle-maiden's presence as she stepped between the pillars that led to the common sleeping area. She did not make a sound. She did not bang her staff on the polished floors or call out for them to wake. She simply stood there.
That alone had been enough to rouse them all from their slumber—one-by-one.
Thomas was woken out of his sleep by sheer force of her presence. His eyes only one of the many who turned their gaze towards her as the starlit floor of the main chamber cast an argent light at her back. The moment after he, woke the Maiden broke her silence and her soft-spoken voice carried across the antechamber like a cool breeze.
"The Slayers of Demons are in need of thine aid."
The words were simple and said with a serenity that belied their gravity. It was enough to make Thomas' heart sink into his stomach.
Freke's apprentice was the only one who would ask the question that none of them had the courage to voice. "Did they fail?"
The candle-maiden's expression didn't move or shift or hint to a conclusion. And if there was an answer to be found in her gaze, the wax covering her eyes obsured them to all as she turned her back to them.
"To those who would offer thine aid, come. Our time is short."
Thomas did not consider himself a brave man as she began to march out and others followed. Not since the colorless fog and demons encroached over the lands. Not since he'd ran away and stumbled into the Nexus.
Not since he'd left his wife and daughter behind in the process.
He was not a brave man; he tended to a stockpile of items for the others. He kept them safe and cleaned, ready for use when they were needed. If asked, he lent a helping hand in other matters as well. He always tried to lend a helping hand in order to make this place as comfortable as possible for everyone else.
After all, the Nexus was meant to be a sanctuary for them. A place safe from the horrors of the world beyond, frightful things that made his heart race and his palms break into a cold sweat at the mere memory.
It had become a home to him in the wake of everything else—so much so that he wasn't sure if he could leave even if the Demons were destroyed or banished or whatever happened to the fiends when they were defeated.
The Nexus was safe. And so long as the Monumental remained, it would always be safe. The only evil that could enter here was what they themselves brought in.
Thomas was a good man. Or, at least the very least, he tried to be. But he could not say he was a brave one.
He wasn't a liar, after all.
Regardless, he found himself digging through the stockpile of items for an old, well-worn spear as his heart began hammering beneath his ribs. He was not a warrior, a knight, or even a healer. He did not wish to leave the Nexus and face the soul-starved madmen and demons.
But if he remained behind now… when they needed help…
Well, he wouldn't be able to call himself a good man either.
Shirou's world was blanketed in ethereal, white fog.
His mind was sluggish, as if every thought was forced to swim through mud. Every breath he took was shallow and thin, as though he was inhaling through a straw, and he felt nauseous to his core. He swayed with every step, the floors and halls forged of cloudy wisps and colorless fog parting and rippling around him.
His eyes trailed down to his fingers as a biting cold gnawed at them, only to see wafting streamers of silver coiling from the digits as he peered straight through the appendage…
Am I dead? He wondered.
"Not quite," an old, powerful voice answered with words that were measured and slow as they echo within the chamber of fog. "But you are certainly closer than most would prefer."
Startled by the voice, Shirou became aware of the man now standing next to him.
He was a regal figure, body shrouded in a veil of fog and white flame. His hands were clasped behind his back as he stared down at the youth with silver-fire eyes from behind the outline of a beard. The gaze seemed somehow both piercing and decidedly bored… or perhaps disappointed.
"Where am I?" Shirou found himself asking, in a voice that sounded faint and mumbled even to his own ears. "Who are you?"
"As I've said, where you are is between the realms of the living and the dead," the ghost drawled. "As for who I am… I am your King."
No. No that was wrong. He knew almost instinctively this wasn't his King, even if his thoughts were slow as they bubbled up through the sludge that mired and suffocated them, opaque and barely understandable.
His King had green eyes.
But slowly, as the pieces came together like shards of glass fitting into a mosaic, it came to him. "A King… you're a King of Boletaria."
"The first," the phantom corrected gently. "I am the eldest. The very founder of the house of Boletaria. The champion of the Ash fields, of the first great war against the Old One. The wielder of Demonbrandt and Soulbrandt.
"I… am Old King Doran."
The all-consuming, colorless fog swept across the field of countless blades, encroaching upon the Reality Marble while an ominous presence loitered within it.
The King of Heroes could feel it was something old. Primordial even. The presence of something so ancient that all things that were like it had long since been banished from the world was something that was too unique to ignore.
His blood-toned gaze briefly turned back towards the Faker. The cur was tensed as his steel-grey eyes peered at the fog invading his personal world. His blades were at the ready, the fight between the two Archers paused at the presence that could be felt coming closer.
It was unexpected. Not something planned. An intruder.
Gilgamesh had accumulated precious knowledge as readily as he had treasures in life. Wisdom of ages and magic long forgotten. From that wellspring he drew the conclusion that the cur had ended up creating a bridge.
Perhaps another Faker in another reality had encountered the primordial fog, or there was a convergence of simultaneous operations within realities. The thought of another Faker with an inner world similar to this one filled with forgeries sickened him. However, even accounting for that crutch, crossing the boundaries of one world to another was not a simple matter.
Gilgamesh could think of three means of doing so off the top of his head, but this…
This was something different.
It was something crude and jagged, the primordial monstrosity brute forcing its way through a flimsy bridge that was barely being held together under its power. Opposite Reality Marbles were crashing, bending, and twisting as they superimposed themselves over the native worlds, backed by the primeval abomination exaggerating and exploiting its inherent nature to bend the rules of reality until the world crushed it.
He could even feel time itself splintering. Small, brief instances of changing fluctuations, where two laws of time were in conflict. He could not say if their time within the Reality Marble turned prison was slower or faster than the world outside of it. All he knew was that they weren't aligned with one another anymore…
And that the new presence filling this world was undoubtedly his enemy.
"I will deal with you momentarily, Faker," the King of Heroes drawled. "A far more rabid mongrel requires my attention for now."
"Don't hurt yourself," the lackwit retorted, a poor attempt at being clever as the sound of armored feet drawing closer rang out amidst the coiling fog that grew denser.
Such an insult was unforgivable. But it was forgotten when an even more egregious insult passed through the mystifying miasma and came into their view. Something so blasphemous to the Oldest Hero in history that it left him momentarily in shock.
Standing in front of him as the mist parted around the presence that had invaded this decrepit world was…
"Sa…ber…" The Faker muttered, his breathing hitched. The fool couldn't see what laid beneath the surface.
But Gilgamesh could. He could see them squirming inside of her like vile worms, the foreign presences being corralled by a predominant one had taken root inside her. They were overriding her will, the sheer presence of their power acting as a weight to crush her soul and tie it down. The woman that he himself had claimed was being subjugated by another.
The sheer... audacity of it all left his teeth gashed together and his lips pulled themselves into the most vicious expression imaginable.
"You dare taint what is mine…" Golden ripples sprouted into existence, barrels aimed as weaponry of all makes and molds were chambered. "You… FILTHY ABOMINATION!"
Innumerable treasures were fired as a single, unyielding battery meant to obliterate that which had violated what he had claimed to be his was unleashed. Yet, they all shattered the moment the abomination's hand cut through the air, the surge of weaponry breaking with a single swing…
No, not a single swing. It had been a seamless series of swings that sliced through everything that had been fired. And the weapon responsible being a monstrous, demonic blade unlike any Gilgamesh had within his vaults.
The King of Heroes bristled as the stolen, inhumanly empty eyes then fixed onto him.
Falling ash and rising flames.
The scent of blood and the acrid smoke.
Nexus residents were assailed by these as they passed through the Archstone and arrived in Boletaria. Or what was left of it, anyway.
Patches the Hyena planted his tower shield on the ground beside him as he squatted down and drank in the sight of the burning city ahead of them. A whistle escaped his mouth. "Blimey… this place certainly took some damage since last I came, didn' it?"
"By Umbasa," Saint Urbain muttered, horrified by the sight.
"That bloke ain't got no pull here, mate." Blidge, the self-titled Graverobber, said while giving the priest a hardy slap on the shoulder. He then stepped past him, drawing his curved sword. "Well, come on. They ain't gonna find themselves."
With prayers on his lips and making holy signs with his hands, Urbain followed after the graverobber while blessing the remains of the fallen as he passed. Patches shrugged before he rose to his feet and followed, picking up his shield and hoisting his spear over his shoulder. Thomas was the only one who remained hesitant, his grip over his spear held in a white-knuckled grip as though he was afraid it would vanish the moment he let go.
"Come, step in front of me," Selene Vinland said from beside him, the whispering hint of her phantom blade visible just by the faint edges that caught the light of the smoke-choked sun.
"I'll bring up the rear."
Thomas nodded, recognizing the offer and grateful for it as he observed what had become of the kingdom.
The inner city had never been grounds he could roam freely before, as it was reserved for noble families and the houses of chivalrous knights. No place for the tailor he'd been before the colorless fog or the son of a butcher and a baker he'd been in his youth. He had once—and only once—passed the white stone bridge before crossing over the crystal waters that children played in before the days of madness.
Back then the inner city had seemed like a wholly different world.
The streets were crafted of finely cut stone. The homes chiseled of marble and gleaming silver. The grand statues that chronicled heroic deeds etched onto their very bases erected everywhere. And the white-gold citadel spire where the King resided being the culmination of the glory and wealth of their kingdom made manifest in a way even for a simple man like him could see and appreciate.
Now this place was nothing more than a charnel house—a hell.
The streets were cracked and broken, with the stone still glowing red hot in some places while others were cooling into slag. The marvelous buildings had collapsed under immense weight and force, whole causeways having crumbled into the foundations below as sewer waters poured through the widening crevices. The dead were black with decay or charred to a crisp, with the smell of burning meat hanging sickeningly thick in the air.
It all made Thomas' stomach roil as they navigated through the tight, shattered city streets. More than once he needed to scramble over broken pieces of rubble, or balance across wooden beams that once supported the buildings now in ruins around them.
He noticed that, as Blidge and Patches led their way through the city with their weapons at the ready, both men were eyeing the bits of silver and gold furnishings within the cracked exteriors of the noble homes. Considering their epitaphs, he was grateful for their seeming restraint. He couldn't convince either man to remain true to their purpose in coming here if they ventured off to plunder the city, and he doubted Urbain's piety would sway them either.
"Blimey, would ya look at that…" Patches' voice drew Thomas' attention from working his way down a pile of rubble using his spear as a walking stick towards the main thoroughfare. The great gates towards the end of the road were shattered. The bandied steel and stone were twisted and broken, with the walls around it near crumbling.
Those same gates he remembered being impenetrable as a boy were now just a smoking, shattered husk of what it once was.
"What happened here?" Selene inquired in disbelief at the devastation from over his shoulder. "Even a thousand demons couldn't have wrought this much damage."
Thomas had no answer for her as he cast his gaze skywards towards the white tower. Even that majestic citadel bore its share of scars and wounds. He couldn't help but dread how much worse the inner city would be once they found their way through the crumbling streets…
The Hound of Ulster held his spear at the ready, crimson steel gleaming in the moonlight as shadows played along its blood-infused surface.
In a flash, his spear cut through the night itself. Streaks were left behind as a number of winged centipedes that had been rushing towards him were left in pieces.
Yet those same insects writhed as their husks split open, birthing shadowy tendrils. They attempted to latch onto Lancer faster than the human eye could track. A twirl of his spear to bring the blade around once more cut short the tenebrous appendages, leaving them to dissolve into black wisps of smoke and ash.
Ignoring the laughter rumbling through the dark as more of the insects were birthed from shadows and scattered across the forest, Lancer felt the thin veil of miasma that began to encroach along the forest floor brushing against him. It was sapping away at the magical energy keeping his form corporeal, likely to be more than enough to erode him away had he not found a new Master to maintain himself.
The old magus was hiding somewhere. Keeping his distance while using poison, insects, and misdirection to grind him down before he unleashed whatever was meant to deliver a killing blow. And if he really was as mindless as the worm thought, perhaps that might even work.
There were few in this land who would have heard of his tale. Even to those of his homeland who knew of his legend in this modern age, it would seem that his defining trait was tossing himself into battles he could not win, blindly defying the death that fate laid out before him through fury and rage.
Few could peer past the ink on pages and see him for more than the brazen brute with a tendency for becoming blood-drunk in his fury.
In the end, those like Bazett were a rarity in this age.
But Lancer was no murderous, blood-crazed fiend, having been trained by Scáthach in magecraft and war. He had already worked out the nature of his enemy between what he'd seen and the young lady's words. Even an enemy who had cast away their original body and lingered in such a pitiful form wasn't beyond his lance's reach.
The ground trembled as a mutant, monstrous centipede burst from beneath the earth, mandibles and legs dripping with an inky venom as it lunged for him. A thrust of the lance was all it took to put an end to that, piercing through its carapace, but then it abruptly swelled and burst into a noxious cloud that was even more potent than the miasma. Lancer took to the trees above faster than the eye could see, the limb bending under his weight as he escaped the cloud not a moment too soon.
I just need to find whatever it is that his rotten soul is anchored to, Lancer thought to himself as he peered through the forest. He'd already set his own runes into motion to track down the source, so it was just a matter of finding him and then fulfilling his role as the sword of revenge for the young lady. After that he'd be able to fight as his heart desired and experience a real battle for once, unencumbered by a Command Seal and with a surplus of magical energy fueling his existence.
"Hrm!?" A jolt shot up his spine as the colors of the world inverted for a single heartbeat.
A primal sort of fear, more instinct than conscious awareness grabbed hold of his mind, leaving sweat beading his brow and his muscles frozen in place as it registered the abnormality.
Something was here.
Something that shouldn't be here was here.
It wasn't the worm either. He knew that instinctively as whatever it was that he was feeling was beyond even the monster the magus had become. And it was coming from the mansion that loomed past the tree line like a dark monolith.
The grip on his spear tightened.
"Speak to me, child," the ancient king commanded. "What has become of my kingdom? Why did even one long dead such as I feel the pull on my soul? Why are my subjects not allowed their due rest?"
It was a struggle for Shirou to comprehend the words in his current state. Stringing together thoughts was difficult. His memories were distant.
But, on the fringes of his mind he recalled one thing. "We…We were fighting demons..."
"The Archdemon." The King nodded. "Yes. I sensed its gaze on you, which is why I pulled you to me instead. But that is not what I'm asking. I'm asking why did you call to us? Were you so consumed by your battle that you did not realize the danger of what you would become by gorging yourself as you did on the Souls of the countless dead?"
Shirou blinked, trying to reconcile what he was hearing with the faint recollection in his head.
They did not match.
"I… I didn't," he protested, shaking his head and trying to clear out the cobwebs scattered across his mind to comb through the battle. "I wouldn't."
Old King Dorian hummed quietly. "Strange… I sense no deception from you. But I know what it was I felt. Perhaps you are closer to death than even I realized if you're losing yourself, boy. Or worse, ascencion to demonhood."
Then he stepped forward, his imposing figure overshadowing the shade of a magus. On instinct Shirou moved to step away, recognizing the danger instantly even in his muddled state of mind. However, an invisible force bound him in place.
"This is not something I wished to do, but I require answers." Old King Dorian stretched out his hand and Shirou felt the cold touch of death pool across his thoughts "If you are innocent, I will do what I can to preserve what's left of your spirit. If not, I would have struck you down regardless."
An icy grip forcefully took hold of his mind and what was left of his consciousness was ripped away from him.
That was the only way that Thomas could describe what had become the citadel of the white tower and the area around it.
There was no cobblestone whole and no building undamaged. The streets were cracked open at places, leaving chasms wide enough for a man with a horse to fall through. And the depths were so cavernous and dark that Thomas couldn't see the bottom.
The burnt, blackened or crushed bodies of madmen littered the little navigable space that remained. The scent of burnt meat mingled poignantly with the overpowering copper of blood as they passed them by. And even from a distance they could see flames still burning across the city and smoke continued to billow up into giant, dark clouds that loomed in the sky—blotting out the peaked sun.
This place was a nightmare made real.
Thomas just couldn't see the Boletaria recovering from all of the damage that had been done. Not even if they defeated the demons and banished the Fog,
How could anyone ever hope to build anything up from ashes of the complete and utter destruction wrought upon the land?
The monsters have won, Thomas couldn't help but feel deep down in his heart. The kingdom was doomed to fade away, with nothing but ruins left behind.
It was amidst these dark thoughts that the group decided to split up, using the white citadel tower as a rally point to converge and regroup in two hours. The Thief, Graverobber, and Saint made their way to the north. Thomas and Selene took to the east instead.
Every corpse they passed was one that Thomas prayed would not be one he recognized. Every piece of rubble and broken masonry they stepped around was one he hoped their bodies were not soon to be buried beneath. The very architecture had become as much of a threat as the madmen to navigate around, with the crumbling stone and half-broken beams threatening to topple onto them.
Despite all of that, Selene moved ahead of him with a grace that belied the armor she wore. Her near-invisible sword was drawn free of its scabbard and held at the ready, eyes panning this way and that way for any signs of danger. Danger that, as of yet, remained absent in this dead place.
No… not dead, Thomas corrected as a more fitting set of words came to mind. Not dead, but empty.
It was so profoundly absent of all life that it seemed even Death itself had abandoned the remnants of the once-great Boletaria.
"There!" Selene's voice rang out, her translucent blade pointing towards a solitary building
The only one Thomas could see still standing, in fact.
An island amidst the sea of destruction.
"If it was shielded from destruction, the Slayers of Demons must've done so," she reasoned. "Even if they aren't there any longer, perhaps we can find clues as to their current whereabouts."
Thomas nodded, having absolutely no better explanation for why it alone was safe when everything else was laid to ruins. They had done more than any other mortal had, so it would not be impossible.
He followed her as she moved at a quicker pace, fueled by a renewed sense of urgency and purpose.
Rin's hands were bleeding.
She had only now noticed the crimson covering her fingers and palms, but wasn't sure when or where she'd cut them. If she was capable of standing, she could look back to see just how far the crimson trail ran. But since she wasn't able to do that any longer, she could only guess as her arms kept moving almost on their own accord.
It could have been from when she'd unleashed the spell fueled by souls through the Storm Ruler. The output of the spell had finished the Dragon God, but it had shattered the blade itself. It wouldn't be a surprise if the crystal-like steel had pierced her skin and torn it down to the muscle.
Or it could have been when she'd moved Shirou's body back into the building. Astraea had been notorious for cutting those who would touch the blade, with Shirou being the only exception. Once the Reality Marble collapsed, she had to drag them both back to the only safe place that she knew before she set out.
Then again, it might have been when her legs finally gave out on her. And she'd forced herself to keep moving anyway. Clawing and pressing on the bits and pieces of shattered glass, splinters of cracked wood, or the edges of sharp broken rocks that were strewn in her path as she crawled her way through the broken city.
At this point it was more instinct than will that drove her body, given that Rin didn't know what she was hoping to accomplish. More madness than reason that left her clawing inch by blood-soaked inch over the heated, jagged, debris-strewn stones, tearing at her clothes and flesh.
Until she finally reached the point, after dragging herself across the city that was a broken, shattered pit, that even instinct couldn't move her body further.
Her bloodied digits clutched at the gravel under her fingernails. Grit and ash dug into the wounds and agitated the muscle beneath. She tried to pull herself forward, teeth clenched hard enough for her jaw to ache—all to no avail.
Rin sucked down a broken, shuddering breath through her teeth and swallowed down the taste of copper. The reward for daring to keep breathing was to cough violently as loose ash still managed to choke her throat. Her head dropped, forehead scraping against the heated stone along with her arms as they fell against the ground. Her body refused to move.
Tears began to fall in earnest.
The slowing beats of her heart left her thoughts to steep themselves in the frustration that she felt. No matter how much she willed them to, the tears just wouldn't stop. And it infuriated her, because not only did they solve nothing, but the fact that she couldn't even stop herself from crying made her feel pathetic.
Now, of all times, when she couldn't be fucking useless.
She didn't know where Saber was or if she was still alive. Hell, she didn't even know if Shirou had still been alive when she left to find help, or if he would live long enough for her to get help. And the damned Archstone was so far away it felt like it may as well have been on the moon.
Now all she could do was cry even as her body refused to keep going. There were no solutions to the problems in front of her. No more answers to give.
I have… to keep… moving. Somehow, someway she had to do something. And she couldn't do that if she just stayed there, face on the ground and covered in soot. I have… to keep… moving…
Her hands unclenched, releasing the dust, rock, ash and blood. Her shaking arms reached forward, blindly groping for anything to cling to. Desperately focusing trying to muster both the will and strength to keep dragging herself across the ground again, Rin didn't even hear the voice call out to her or the foot falls approach.
It was only when a touch on her shoulder registered that she tried to raise her head once more. Her heart clung to hope beyond hope that it would be Saber. That it would be the Servant who'd returned after slaying the final Archdemon and securing their way home.
Yet, when that grasp gently turned her over, her blurring eyes focused just long enough to register the concerned face of Thomas. It was filthy and covered in dust and soot, but familiar. And, despite the kindly man trying to pull her close and lift her off the ground, mouth moving as if he were trying to reassure her with words that no longer reached her ears…
Rin still couldn't stop crying.
Archer had long since pulled away from the battle between that… thing and the King of Heroes.
Instead, he stood closer to Ilya, his Master. She stood quietly beside him, staring out into the rust-red field of discarded swords. Watching the two monsters clashing so hard that the Reality Marble itself quaked as she clung to him in a shaking grip.
The Golden Servant was easily the most powerful of Heroic Spirits. Archer was well-aware it was only by the serendipitous whims of fate that he could match him. Even then victory was by no means a certainty, as evident by the fact that despite the colorless fog encroaching upon his world and the creature Saber had become seemed to draw strength from its presence alone, it wasn't strong enough to overwhelm Gilgamesh.
Not yet, anyway.
And much as Archer wished to intervene and secure the death of this monster before it could potentially become strong enough, along with vanquishing the fog it brought into this world, he had no doubt that the arrogant Golden Hero would attempt to use that very same intervention to destroy him and this monstrous Saber at the same time.
In truth, if both monstrosities could weaken the other so he could be rid of them both, Archer would consider it to be the ideal outcome. But he doubted his luck would be that good. It never had been before and wouldn't now.
Even now, the King of Heroes was akin to a literal fortress amidst a storm of blades and singing steel. Archer never had the ability to truly appreciate the deadly power and… beauty of the King's vast array of Noble Phantasms. Not while he was defending himself from them.
But at a distance he could take in the breadth of his treasures. Rare. Esoteric. Divine. Demonic. Weapons of all forms and makes were accounted for—each and every one of them incredibly powerful.
And whatever Saber had become moved with absolutely no wasted movements, no hesitation, not even the shadow of concern passing across her deadened features as weapons that had the power to destroy her a dozen times over barely missed her. The unnatural flawlessness of her movements and the technique itself was… all wrong.
It didn't suit her body. Mechanically responding to external factors and nothing more, alien and robotic in how it fought. He did not recognize any of her in the way she moved.
The passion, energy and drive that he could always detect in her acts was gone. The very thing that was fueled by an inner strength that only she possessed was gone. Even if that was her body, it had erased her very being.
That was not Saber. That thing, whatever it was, was merely wearing Saber's face.
That was fine though. In fact, it made things easier in the end.
After all, he wouldn't even blink at killing a False Saber.
"Wake, Child… Wake."
The disembodied consciousness stirred as the ancient king's voice resonated with it. The scattered pieces were pulled to it, like streamlets of crystalline water fluidly flowing through the fog. They met and pooled until Shirou Emiya eventually became aware of himself once more.
His mind was still sluggish, as if his thoughts were bubbling up from deep waters to reach the surface. But they were clearer. He could feel them. Grasp them. Understand them.
He was becoming more aware. More assured of his existence itself. He opened his eyes and woke to the world between worlds, shrouded in colorless fog and white flame.
And in front of him was Old King Dorian. Only he seemed… less, somehow.
"Forgive my intrusion," drawled the Old King. "But I have seen the state of this world, and my Kingdom, through your eyes. You have my gratitude."
Shriou just nodded his head slowly. "I… I don't know what's really going on, but I have to get back. Rin and Saber… everyone is counting on me. You brought me here, so can you send me back?"
"Soon…" The Old King stated, voice as calm as the sea. "As of now, I am doing all I can to preserve your life. That Demon blade, worked to save you, but it channeled far too much power through your middling physical self far too quickly. It would have inadvertently finished what the Great Dragon started without my work here."
Shirou wasn't sure what to say to that. While his memories were resurfacing, his memory of the battle against the Dragon God itself still seemed muddled. Opaque, as though he were staring at it through a filth-covered glass.
"My time grows short," the Old King continued. "The pull of death can only be resisted for so long and one's soul can only be stretched so much. The Old One seeks to expand its dominion. To spread the Fog further afield than ever before. To tap into a new repository of Souls. You must not allow this. "
In that instant, it was like a switch was flipped in his brain. He grabbed his hair by the fistful as a sudden, nauseating feeling that came over him when the memory of before he was pulled into the dark came rushing forward. His memory of Saber—of the discarded Excalibur and the soulless eyes peering back into his own. "I have to help Saber!"
"Your Servant has been consumed. The Archdemon suppresses her spirit and uses her flesh as a vessel for its power. You will never uproot the beast now that its tendrils have snaked into her mind. Her only salvation is through destruction, and that would be considered a mercy."
The anger was immediate. All-consuming. Shirou had fierce denial ready on the tip of his tongue until he noticed the ancient king's body shimmer and fade for a moment as the founder of Boletaria turned away. He was no longer looking at Shirou, but instead somewhere past him.
"We are done here," he said with a tone of finality. "Heed my words and take up Demonbrandt. Pursue the final Archdemon and, with it, put the Old One to rest again. This is my edict. You will obey it."
And with that said the world twisted, lurching in place.
Shirou's whole body was suddenly wracked with agony as it grew heavy. He sucked in a sharp, pain-filled breath that tasted like copper in his throat. Stumbled forward, stretching out his hands to lean against a solid, unyielding surface.
Then he opened his eyes to see that no longer was he in the world of white flames and colorless fog. Instead, it was a world of colors and blood. Of sweltering heat and singed clothing thick with the acrid smell of smoke
He fell to his knees, coughing out blood. The rough grind against his flesh as his hands trailed down against the doorway added to the pain that ravaged his body. He wasn't sure how long he knelt there, doing nothing but feeling every ache, and every bolt of pain surging through him as he just listened to his own steady breathing.
But the pain was good, because it meant he was still alive.
And that meant he could save Saber.
The King of Heroes was not a fool.
Prideful, he could admit, Arrogant even. Not that it was unwarranted.
But he was not a fool. He could see what was happening right before his eyes. He could understand it.
Even so, it was still somewhat hard to believe.
It was rare for him, one who had walked in the times when Magic was a fresh touch upon the world and the influence of the divine was still a tangible, real thing, to see something so… novel.
The thing that had taken control of his Saber was powerful, even independent of the body of the equally powerful Servant it had despoiled with its touch and whose spirit it chained like a beast.
But that was base. Simple and crude. No, what truly drew his eye was
This thing, this… toxin was a paradox. He could feel the touch of magic upon it, yet it wasn't magical. In the same way the dew of the early morning was not truly water, it was something… simpler. Simpler, yet more enveloping.
He could almost see the sea of souls it had consumed as individual droplets that spread with the veil. He could see its ability to empower even something as formless and nebulous as an idea, making it into something tangible and real. He could even see its nature to imprison and shackle reality and minds alike.
It was a tool of reckless, heedless destruction; yet it sought unity of purpose and single-minded desires.
It had the ability to bind the very fabric of reality together; even as it tore it asunder at the seams.
It had a will; but demanded direction.
This thing was anathema unto itself—a contradiction like Ea, a sword that existed before the concept of swords was even brought into the world. A creation that had never been created.
It was for this reason only that he hesitated to draw on its power now. The ramifications of two primordial forces such as these meeting and clashing was not a thought he relished. Though he felt he would ultimately have little choice if things progressed as they were.
So he divided his focus as the battle raged between opening the Gates of Babylon wider and calling upon his full arsenal. The storm of Noble Phantasms that hurled themselves through the air towards the possessed Saber were the majority, treasures that could unleash devastation ten times over. But the other, more exotic pieces of his arsenal were brought to bear in an attempt to sever the bridge being formed between the different planes of reality right before their very eyes.
Then there was blur of movement to his right.
Crimson eyes darted to the side in time to see the demonic blade cutting through the air. It was heading straight for his neck, intent on severing it from his shoulders. The ringing of steel-on-steel echoed as a blade abruptly shot up from the ground, interposing itself between his neck and the demonic weapon.
"Damn you—!" Golden portals blossomed around the creature wearing Saber's flesh and released their power all at once, a barrage that could obliterate her a dozen times over. Yet through the haze of smoke and blood-soaked dirt the creature emerged, twisting and twirling its stolen body before landing unscathed.
…He did not recall Saber being that fast.
It seemed he could not afford the luxury of dividing his gaze. So, he pulled his attention away from the fog. He could deal with it once the current nuisance was dealt with. Growling as he stared into the dead eyes that were fixed onto him, a portal opened by his side.
"Very well, creature." A rattle echoed across the dried, sword-strewn wastelands of the Reality Marble. "I'll grant you the death you are owed.."
We're almost there. After so many years just one chapter left. We're almost there friends.