Saber's world was gloom and shade, iron and chains. Light was dim. Sounds distant.
She was trapped in a haze… a deep, colorless, fog that permeated every inch of the world around her.
She could feel it pressing down on her mind, like a great, impossible weight that left her own thoughts trapped in a fugue, and it left her breathing thin and wheezing. It was as though she was trying to suck down air through a thin straw while her lungs were being compressed from all sides.
Deep in her mind, in her soul, she knew she had to fight this. She knew she had to get out. To escape from this prison.
But it took all the strength she could muster just to form the notion of the thought. And said strength just as quickly faded away. It was like grains of sand cascading down from her cupped hands—no matter how tightly she clenched her fingers to keep them from escaping her grasp, they just as soon slipped away.
She was just so… so tired as her body seemed to drift amidst the fog, gently rocking back and forth as the vapor seemed to thicken and condense until it was as though she was laying on calm ocean waters, its tides rising and dipping as it lapped at her flesh and enveloped her completely…
And then, like suddenly waking from the haze of a half-dream, her eyes snapped open.
Bright light lifted the gloom. Strength filled her fingers. She could breathe again.
As her awareness returned, Saber found she was laying not amidst fog, but actual ocean waves as they rocked back and forth. The blessing of the Lady of the Lake seemingly returned as she sprang up, coming to rest on her feet atop the water's surface. The splashing sound the water made was deafeningly loud, breaking the placid silence as she took in her new surroundings.
There were ruins of white stone surrounding her—remnants of a broken, shattered town that was half-swallowed by the sea. The King of Knights' heart hammered beneath her ribs with unease, shock, and then a small twinge of fear as she flexed her fingers in an attempt to call Excalibur to her hand… only to be met with no response.
Where—? A spike of pain lanced through her skull as she struggled to remember what had happened before she ended up in this place. The imagery of the killing machine was the first thing that appeared when she found the memory, its cold gaze peering into her eyes. The Archdemon…
"You are -ALL- mine."
…Saber remembered that it had overpowered her. She'd felt the chains of its binding will latching onto her soul, silencing her voice and smothering her very being beneath layers of its all-consuming power.
How long had she been there? How long had she been trapped? Hours? Days?
As she tried to remain aloft on her feet an ache began spreading through her body. It left her knees trembling as they tried to support her weight. It also came with a creeping horror upon realizing that she hadn't been freed from the prison within her own soul.
She was still trapped.
Shaking her head, Saber steadied her breath and enforced clarity upon her mind. She had to remain calm and not think of the possibilities of what could be happening with her body at this moment. No, she needed to focus on the situation that was present.
Like the set of eyes that she could feel weighing upon her even now.
She turned towards the imposing presence she felt on her back, and her heart nearly stopped beating. The visage that greeted her was that of the Archdemon. She found herself facing the killing machine once more…
No… she corrected herself the moment her instinct told her otherwise as their gazes met. There was life within these eyes that the Archdemon lacked, even if their faces were so perfectly matched.
This was not the False King who she'd faced in combat.
It was the true King Allant.
"It is good to at last make your acquaintance, Arturia Pendragon."
The tone of his voice was soft. Almost melodic. Some could liken it to that of a kindly father addressing a child. It was not at all what she had imagined, nor did it suit the severe face she recalled bearing down on her with demonic blade and eldritch power.
"I would converse with my fellow Monarch," he continued. "That is, if you'd allow me the pleasure?"
Rin was assailed by the acrid scent of char the moment she reached the entrance of the building, where wisps of grey smoke from the burning wood cloyingly clawed its way down her nostrils, leaving her throat burning and eyes watering. She tried to swallow down the urge to cough as she feared it would rob her of the strength she still had as Selene of Vinland entered first.
Strength was something she lacked, with most of it being used to simply cling to Thomas for support—He was probably the only thing keeping her upright, one of her arms slung over his shoulder and one of his wrapped around her waist. But the little pride she had left dictated she refused to be carried.
"Where is he?" asked Selene, the paladin's eyes scouring the first floor of the building for any hidden enemy that may have taken shelter in the building in the lapse between when the magus had left it and their return.
Rin jerked her chin to the stairwell. "Upstairs."
Selene's footsteps thumped loudly as she made her way towards them. Thomas felt Rin squeeze on his shoulder and lurched forward, negotiating them both through the door. He then proceeded to help her climb the stairs.
Every step drove iron thorns through her muscles and wedged spikes of pain through her knees, but she tried not to let it show on her face. Even so, Thomas seemed to notice by how he shifted her further upwards while holding her tightly, leaving her feet to barely touch the ground as he hurried after the female paladin. She wanted to say thanks, but once more her pride held her tongue in place.
They reached the top of the stairs and found the room as she'd left it. Ropes, axes, swords, and bows could be seen strewn about the area. Furniture had been blown clear to the other end of the room, with the ground littered with shattered glass, loose straw and goosefeather from the bedding. Even the hilt of the Stormruler was right where she'd left it.
Everything was here…
Except for Shirou.
"No… No, nonono…" Rin muttered as the muscles in her neck stiffened and her head jerked shakily upon spotting a stain of Shirou's blood drying on the wood where his body had been. Mounting anger and horror gave her legs strength as, with one stumbling foot in front of another and then a third, she stood over the bloodstain and shouted, "WHERE IS HE!?"
"Not here," Selene answered drily. "Clearly."
Rin shot her a scathing glare that would have cast a Gandr if she had the strength.
The paladin ignored it as she stepped closer to the bloodstain. Then her eyes shifted as something caught her attention. She moved to a nearby window and gestured to the lower windowsill, where Rin could just spy a smudge of dark red blood having been swiped over the wood as Selene leaned over the shattered frame. "There's a trail."
Rin took a step forward, only for her legs to give way since the cocktail of adrenaline and anger wasn't a long-term remedy for exhaustion. The strength she'd found to leave Thomas' side abandoned her. She would have fallen flat on her face had the man not caught her mid-fall, obviously having been expecting it.
"My lady please," he said softly. "You need to rest."
"I'm fine!" Her voice came out hot and barbed, tinged with fury at herself and her own weakness rather than anyone else. "We need to find Shirou!"
"I'll find him," Selene said, her voice flat and rough in comparison as she looked towards Thomas without sparing Rin a further glance. "She's of no use to anyone the way she is now and you'll both only slow me down if we try to follow together. Take her to Urbain instead and see if he can't tend to her injuries."
Rin grit her teeth, forcibly biting down a dozen snappish comments that came to mind. As galling as it was to admit… the woman was right for the most part.
She was without her spells. Her own body had failed her to the point she couldn't even stand on her own two legs, leaving her fucking useless. The least she could do was not slow things down further by throwing petty barbs back and forth….
Then again, maybe the shiny paladin lady should try her hand at fighting a Dragon the size of a mountain and see how 'of use' she was afterwards, she couldn't help but think as Selene left them behind and began descending the stairs. Then, when Thomas moved to carry her away again, she held up her hand to stop him.
"Lady Tohsaka, you don't have the stren—"
She cut him off with a shake of her head before pointing towards the hilt of the broken Stormruler that still lay on the floor.
"Pick that up, please. Then we can go."
Shirou Emiya was worried as he stumbled his way through the still-burning streets and ash-choked alley.
A deathly chill had overtaken his body. A frigid cold so biting that his hands were trembling despite the fact that the heat from the lingering flames was literally suffocating him as he fought for every single breath.
Yet he kept walking.
The pounding of his heart hammered away at his skull and left his mind scrambled with every thought. Every bone in his body felt like it had been replaced by jagged glass, the slivers cutting him open from the inside out with every step. Blood flowed freely from every cut and tear, leaving wet and sticky trails running down his flesh with every breath.
Yet, he kept stumbling forward.
Because between the pain pounding at his skull to the rhythm of his own heartbeat he could hear it. He could feel that something was calling to him. That something was reaching out through the skein of screaming souls had been consumed in this place for him.
So he kept moving forward despite the pain.
Astraea's weight on his back was far heavier than it had been before. But he didn't dare put her down for even for a moment. Because if he did so while the touch of her soul on his mind was as faint as the edges of the blade, he was afraid she might vanish entirely—even the barest whispers forever lost.
Shirou continued moving despite the pain, putting one leg in front of another despite how they felt like lead weights. His trembling hands sought handholds to support his weight as he continued down the path. His aching lungs pushed in and out to grab what little oxygen they could from the burning air to keep his body functioning.
Whatever it took to keep moving, he did so. Because as long as it called to him, Shirou knew he couldn't stop until he reached it. So, he kept moving despite the weight on his back and the pain that threaded his body from head to toe.
One step, then another...
"What do…you… want?" Saber's voice was curt between the pained rasps as she glared at the specter of the King of Boletaria.
In response, he merely stared at her impassively and spoke with a calm tone. "Even before my ascension, speaking to a fellow ruler of men was a rare privilege. And I suspect few would have been as curious a subject as you've been."
"Do not presume such…" She took a deep breath and found her voice under that gaze that regarded her so brazenly. "I am not some curiosity for you to scrutinize."
"I beg to differ." The expressionless face twisted into a smile. Not a gentle one, but a small, cruel thing that would send a chill up the spine of lesser men and women. "You forget, King of Knights, I have seen into your soul."
Her spine went rigid. Her teeth grit. Her fists clenched as she denied his words. "Lies."
"I have glimpsed your spirit," he continued, circling her with his hands clasped behind his back. "In it, I have seen that ever since you drew that sword from the stone you've been a creature of duty, sorrow and pain—"
"ENOUGH!" Her composure cracked. Part of her that had been buried so deeply that not even those she'd considered her closest allies had seen had been laid bare before the cruel king in front of her. It ignited a burning anger in her chest, made all the more acute by the helplessness she felt at her own weakness. "Get out of my mind this instant!"
He smiled, amused. "But, my fellow King… we don't find ourselves in your mind at present."
The world shifted with his words. The white stone ruins and lapping ocean waves vanished around them, only for the very texture of the world to be replaced with a field of rust-red earth and endless swords. A battlefield that stretched beyond one's gaze and marked by gravestones of countless blades.
Saber's eyes panned across the expanse, searching as the sound of crashing steel rang out. They settled beneath the great cogs grinding and screeching across the horizon. It was there that life could be found in the wasteland as two figures fought in the distance.
The first she recognized instantly. The Archer who once presumed to claim her in the last War, with eyes the hue of blood and golden armor from ages long before her own. It was the King of Heroes.
The other was something so alien to her eyes that she didn't recognize it at first. The movements were all wrong. They were stiff, rigid, and almost autonomous. The blade was so undeniably twisted and wrong that it seemed to warp the space between them.
Yet, without a doubt, that was…her body.
No sooner than she registered that truth did the air around her become nebulous as fog rolled in and swallowed land and blades. The floor at her feet became a curtain of starlight spread across an onyx pitch as King Allant spoke once more.
"You and I are both guests within the will of the Old One now."
It was not fear the King of Heroes felt.
It could not be fear or concern.
If it could be described as anything, it would be a morbid sense of… fascination.
He could practically see as it happened. Feel it by the change in the air. The way her prana moved, the way the magic around her shifted and roiled like a churning sea. From observation alone, Gilgamesh could tell this… possession, must've been remarkably recent.
This abomination that had laid claim to the woman he'd claimed for himself was in the process of discovering her limits. Slowly, inexorably, it was testing her body and pushing to understand just how far it could go. Like someone breaking in a new suit they've slipped on for the first time.
Every step it made was just a bit quicker. Every response a bit smoother. Every stroke of the demonic-seeming weapon that was alien in her grasp was a bit more powerful than the last.
And every pass the blade made was ever closer to striking him.
Even so, it wasn't fear he felt.
Rather, he wondered what limits Saber's body would reach within the thralls of possession. Saber was, outside of himself, one of the most powerful Servants in the War when paired with a competent Magus for a Master. But now, with this…thing within her, fueling her…
His interest was piqued in just how far it could go.
…That being said, Gilgamesh wasn't a fool. He never had been. For all the novelty this primeval entity might possess, he didn't know the limitations it would reach.
It might not even have one—such a thing was not inconceivable.
That was another reason he had to bring this to a close.
And he possessed the means to do so as well. Because beyond the ever-increasing speed, strength and control over its host body, the King of Heroes could see something else within its movements.
Most decent folk would call Blige immoral. Perhaps even evil. But he was an honest man at the very least—and proud of that fact.
After all, he made no secret what he did to survive.
In fact, it was damn well the first thing he announced when he introduced himself with, "How do ya do? I'm Graverobber Blige, a pleasure."
He could tell a lot about a person by how they looked at him when he said it too. Back in the day, when the Fog had just crept in and people still thought they had a fighting chance, they looked with open disgust. But, after a while, the disgust became a muted sort of judgement.
A little after that, there was less judgement and more curiosity. They'd make a face that asked, "Why the hell would you just say it?"
He still got those looks every now and again. But most people just didn't care by now. They didn't have time to care considering the state of the world.
More than that, they were all doing it to some degree or other. They had to because this whole world was nothing more than a giant bloody grave by now. Just madmen and monsters left, so why care?
But Blige still cared to a degree.
He still had some morals. Not many, mind you, but they were tucked inside of him tight. That was why he hadn't even looked for anything to steal since he'd arrived.
Right now, he was only looking for the Slayers of Demons. The wax-eyed creepy lady said they needed help, so that's what he came here to do. Not line his pockets…
At least not yet. He was an honest man, after all.
The self-proclaimed graverobber sighed as he watched the bald, hook-nosed weasel from across a pile of rubble. The man was scurrying and sniffing about. Eyeing his surroundings like a rat searching for a bit of cheese.
There weren't many people who Blige would be judgmental of, considering most would label him morally and ethically defunct. But Patches was a different story. This smarmy bastard would smile at his own mother as he cradled a knife to stab her from the back.
Blige didn't trust him. Not by a long shot. But the wily prick was useful since he had a nose for trouble and a way to get out of it.
Besides, the priest they were traveling with, Urbain, was mostly a hapless church-boy with some decent healing spells. If Blige wasn't here, he was sure Patches would find a way to kill the priest, steal his stuff, and make his way back to the Nexus with some story that made it look like an accident. That was why he always made sure to stay between Patches and the priest.
Healers were damn hard to come by these days and losing one to the slimy bastard's beady-eyed greed was not something he was willing to let happen.
The three kept moving quietly with Patches in the lead, Blige just behind him, and Urbain two steps behind the graverobber. The suffocating heat and the acrid smoke burned at the back of their throats as they navigated through the rubble and broken city streets. Not for the first time they had to wonder what bloody Demon the others faced down to leave the capital a smoldering hell hole.
Musta been some Monster, Blige couldn't help but think. He was no stranger to ruins and devastation, but he hadn't seen anything like this. Not even the grey-skinned giant that tore its way through the temple and mausoleum over in the land of shadows and storms could cause this much damage.
It was a testament to the hellish flames that had scorched all that nearby blackened, warped armor was still smoking around the body of a curled-up corpse. The flesh had been melted off its face, leaving only grinning, muscle and sinew staring back at him through the slagged helmet's opening.
Not a single piece of furniture or wood was left completely intact. Glass, both shattered and half-melted in equal measure, was littered across the ground. And virtually every building had either collapsed, been burnt to the ground, or was teetering on the edge of toppling over at the next great gust of wind.
The curiosity was unbearable. But at the same time he was grateful that whatever had caused all this was dead—or at least not here at the moment. He definitely didn't want to be anywhere near whatever monster this was.
Patches' turn of words caught his attention, drawing Blige's eyes up to where the man stood atop a rubble pile ahead of him. "What is it?"
The shifty-eyed crook looked at Blige from over his shoulder and then pointed with his spear somewhere ahead of him. "Found one, eh."
That made Urbain rush past them, forcing Blige to follow in haste while keeping a wary eye on Patches. But the crook hadn't lied. No sooner than they rose over the lip of the rise, they found an arm sticking out a pile of rubble.
His body may have been buried beneath a ton of rubble from a collapsed building, but the make of the armor they could gleam was absolutely unmistakable—it was Biorr.
"By Umbassa!" Urbain shouted before rushing down, with Blige almost cursing the damn priest for being too loud, too clumsy, and far too unwary by half. Had he forgotten that threats could be lurking behind every stone?
Fortunately, nothing skulked out of the ruins and Blige could let go of the Falchion strapped to his waist after a moment. He followed the priest down, keeping Patches in the corner of his eye, as the man pushed aside as much of the rubble as he could. He was stronger than he looked under those robes, but the graverobber could already see that it would do them no good.
"Don't think your healing can do much for a dead man," he said softly.
Urbain slumped where he knelt, hands resting on the rubble. A somber sigh escaped his lips as the beginnings of a prayer formed—
"She was laying here."
—when Patches interrupted, kneeling next to an absolutely massive shield. The thing was battered and partly scorched but still intact. The fact that Blige hadn't seen it under the ash and dust showed he was slipping since arriving at the Nexus.
"The girl was here," Patches continued, his hand hovering over a spot darker than the rest. "I can see the blood and sweat."
There was something about the way the man said that with a smile that served to unnerve the both of them. The way his hooked nose made him look like a goblin as he grinned while shifting his weight. His eyes skimmed about their surroundings as he pieced together the scenario.
"It wasn't fire, but something big plowed through the building. The old codger gave her his shield and died for it over there, caught by the force of it and buried, but she survived enough to get back up…"
He trailed off while shuffling towards a broken, wooden beam and pointed towards it. "Then this piece fell on her and knocked her to the ground. She blasted it to get free. See the charred edges?"
Blige stepped closer to get a better look. Then he spotted the charred and splintered portion. It seemed the thief was right.
Patches moved along sideways, following a dust trail. "She survived… then crawled this way…"
"Is she alive?" Urbain asked as Patches kept moving until he was beyond the ruins of the building.
The thief shrugged. "Dunno…That beam shoulda broken her in half though, which explains why she's craw—oh ho ho…what's this?"
He smiled, kneeling again. "She crawled for a bit, but now she's walkin'. Some healin' spell maybe?" He looked over to Urbain. "You been teachin' the lil witch on the side, cleric? Maybe getting' some good trade in before the end of the world?"
Urbain bristled. "How dare yo-"
"Not now!" Blige barked at them both. Then he looked to Patches. "Keep goin'. We gotta find her."
Patches snickered, beady eyes scanning the ground as he followed along a path only he could see.
"Aye she was walkin'… this wasn't no run either." He gestured along the ground in a staggered pattern. "She's still stumblin' every other step. Her feet were heavy, unsure. That beam did some real damage…hmmm…."
He turned his head squinting towards the east and pointed with his spear. "Right there."
Blige looked in that direction, but Patches was already moving. He practically vaulted over the rubble. By the time they could follow to see what the thief was pointing at, he was staring into the distance.
That was when they spotted it.
It was faint. Distant. The smoke and ash did no favors for visibility, but they could see a building that was still whole and standing—mostly, anyway.
"That's where she was goin'," the thief said. "I'd bet me bottom coin on it."
The city was crumbling beneath Selene's feet.
She could feel the cobblestones beneath her shifting precariously with every step, loosened through tremors and the earth-shaking damage throughout the capital. It was as though the whole city was just waiting to go teetering over the edge of the ravine if the foundation shifted even a little more.
In her studies of the Kingdoms, from when she was just a young girl, she remembered learning that Boletaria's inner city had been built over a great hollow stone that encased a cavernous lake directly under the palace.
The question of whether or not the city would eventually collapse into the hollow crevice entirely crept into her mind. But she brushed it off for the moment. The current task required her full attention as things were.
The choking smoke and black smog was making following the blood trail more difficult, but that was only part of the reason. The other part was because the bloodstains were getting further apart. Since she hadn't noticed enough blood to kill a man, it could only be assumed his wounds were clotting.
It was a mixed blessing. He wouldn't die from blood loss if that was the case. But if she didn't hurry, she'd lose his trail entirely.
Not helped was that fact that it was unfamiliar terrain. She had never been to Boletaria herself, save for one occasion when her family visited. It was when she was barely a child of six years and her brother Garl was only a boy of ten. The city hadn't been in such a condition back then either.
Still, she couldn't help but wonder where it was he was trying to go.
The White-Gold Tower hovered like a monolith to the northwest, while the outer city where he could escape was located to the south. Yet, from what she could tell, Emiya was stumbling towards the northeastern wall. The only thing beyond that wall was a sheer cliff that dropped into the rushing river below—a dead end.
Perhaps he's delirious or confused, she mused. It wouldn't surprise her. Slayer of Demons or not, the boy was just that: a boy. And one that seemed more at home cooking than fighting, by her estimation.
It didn't appear that he was being dragged, so he must have been walking under his own power but—
Her foot slipped. Or so she believed until she realized a second too late that it wasn't that she slipped. Rather, a chunk of the road had caved in with a thunderous crack under her weight.
Selene cursed as she grabbed onto the closest thing she could, the steel of her gauntlets scraping noisily until her grip found a splintered wooden beam. She clung to it as her last remaining foothold seemed to sink a heart-stopping inch before settling again. Then she breathed out a tense breath, her heart pounding against her ribcage as she slowly, carefully extracted herself from the hole.
As the Paladin pulled her leg free, she noted the cavernous hollow that had nearly swallowed her was, in fact, another piece of the city. One buried beneath the white cobblestone and high buildings.
A tomb perhaps?
She did not dare to lean too far over the opening, lest it actually swallow her. But from what little she could see it was indeed a mausoleum of some kind, chiseled straight into the undercroft foundations of the city itself. It must have been old—old enough for the city to be built over it.
Was it a coincidence that he was heading in this direction?
That thought came to her mind in a flash as she considered the facts. Was he searching for something in the undercroft? Was there another entrance?
Selene turned away from the opening. Her eyes instead returned to scanning the charred and half-broken stone to find the trail of Emiya's blood once more. The moment she did, she quickened her pace.
The White Gold Tower was just over a stone's throw away and Thomas could finally spy its white marble steps at the top of the rise just ahead of them when the lady Tohsaka's legs finally gave out.
Despite their insistence she tried to support her weight even after they'd retrieved the broken blade and set out. Eventually, they settled with a compromise of him lending a supporting hand to keep her upright. But since his own eyes and ears weren't defunct it hadn't been hard to notice that even that was a losing battle as they made their way here, despite her effort to keep her pain hidden.
But now, even if she refused to admit it aloud out of pride or a need to convince herself that she was in better shape than she actually was, it was clear she didn't have even the strength for that anymore. Her teeth were grit, her eyes clenched, and hot tears leaked from the corners. She could go no further on her own two legs.
And so, with a mustering of what remained of his strength after the near hour-long trudge through the ruined city of Boletaria, Thomas lifted her up as much as he was able to and hurried along up the hill. "It's alright, my lady. We're almost there."
"Took your sweet time gettin' here too, din'ya mate?"
The weasley voice caught Thomas off-guard, straightening his back when recalled who it belonged to as he followed it into the remains of an alleyway to the left.
The hook-nosed Patches grinned at the both of them. Of all the people who came at the Maiden's plea, he was the man Thomas trusted the least. It was a sentiment that wasn't likely to change any time soon considering how his beady eyes fell on them like hungry vermin to carion.
"Did you find them?"
Luckily, a second later he realized Patches wasn't alone as the voice of the good and priestly Saint Urbain rang out. The saint rounded the corner, accompanied by the graverobber, and the second his eyes settled on Lady Tohsaka he brushed past the thief and towards them.
"I'll need to tend to her," he fussed, head swiveling until he spied a clear space amidst the rubble that seemed more comfortable than the rest. "There. Thomas, set her down there."
Thomas nodded, relieved that she was about to get the help she needed. He was no master of miracles or magic. The best he could do was carry her over and lay her on the ground as gently as possible.
Golden light from the healing miracle flowed from Urbain's hands as they hovered over the young woman. Her pallor, which had been a sickeningly pale shade compared to before she'd left the Nexus, instantly grew healthier. Her breathing grew laxer and the pained expression she wore lessened.
"Where are the others?" asked the graverobber abruptly, startling him.
"I-I—" He shook his head to calm his nerves before he answered. "Lady Selene has taken the task of finding Master Shirou. We have yet to find the Lady Saber."
In a voice that was so quiet that Thomas almost didn't hear it, each of the gathered turned as one towards Lady Tohsaka. Her trembling hand managed to only rise mere inches, just high enough to where she could point towards tower of white and gold—specifically at the shattered ruin of the upper level.
Now that they were close, Thomas could spy the colorless fog from how it warped the very air as it hung above the floor. Just looking at it sent a shiver of fear up his spine. A frigid, dreadful fear spreading across his body and gnawing at his heart.
"The Archdemon…was there…" she managed to fit between breaths.
"That's where it was?" Patches mused, sitting down beside the young woman. "Then wot the fuck did ya'll do out here?"
"Nngh…fought a Dragon…" She shuddered. "A God Dragon."
Thomas wasn't sure if they believed her considering the incredulous looks. Then again, he wasn't sure if he believed her either. She was in a lot of pain, so she could have been seeing things.
"Well—" Urbain began "—Dragon or not, we need to return you to the Nexus. This level of damage is beyond my skill to heal. It's only by the grace of Umbasa himself that your body hasn't completely fallen apart."
"I've got to find Shirou and Sab—!" A sharp gasp slipped from her mouth as she tried to force herself to sit up, causing Thomas to reach over as her body seized up and the pained expression on her face blossomed anew.
"These two can continue the search," Urbain insisted, gesturing towards Patches and Blige. Then he looked to Thomas. "Help me take her to the Archstone. We'll need the Dark Lady's assistance."
Thomas nodded subtlety, avoiding the glare that she was giving the priest. He wasn't the bravest of men, so he was grateful that someone else was willing to tell her what she clearly didn't want to hear.
"Oi, Cleric," Patches growled. "Who in the blue fuck made you the boss o' me?"
The priest found himself staring down at the thief, who was glaring up at him with an expression that said he'd much prefer the man as a carcass. Despite that, Urbain said pointedly, "The Slayers must be found. Lady Tohsaka needs healing in the Nexus. Unless you are a worker of miracles, we are best suited to escort her back while you two continue the search."
Patches looked like he was ready to argue, but Blige placed a hand on his shoulder. "Think about how many get a chance to loot the palace itself without prying eyes?"
Any protest hanging off the tip of Patches' tongue died instantly. It was instead replaced by an unabashed gleam of greed. Bouncing to his feet from where he was crouched with a spring in his step, the man began jogging towards the tower.
"What are ya waitin' for, ya git. Hurry it up!"
"Is that… really Saber?"
Those were the first words Ilya spoke since the battle unfolded, and they came out soft and quiet as snow. It'd taken some time for her to gather her nerves in the wake of the devastating clash in front of them. The tinge of fear still wafted in the air about her as she stood behind Archer.
Not that he could blame her for it as he answered with a muted, "No."
Whatever that thing was… Whoevers face it wore… it was not Saber. It carried nothing of her. Nothing at all.
What Archer saw was only a machine. A killing machine carrying out a pre-set function. Passionless and empty.
He could feel it in the air and see it in the pattern of their movements…
No. Not theirs.
The fight was fast. Even with his eyes it had gotten almost too fast to see. The thing that wore Saber continuously moved faster and faster, its strength gradually becoming more powerful.
In contrast, Gilgamesh's motions and weapons grew just a little slower each exchange and became a little easier for the machine to dodge. The chain that could trap the divine rattled as it sailed across the air, the golden portals threading and crisscrossing as they filled the very space with clinking metal links. In an instant they formed a barrier, a net, and a snare all-in-one—yet that machine was too fast to be caught and too strong to be stopped.
It had to end soon.
Gilgamesh knew that. Archer could see as much just by reading his body language and expression. His visage was calm and emotionless, save the all-encompassing disdain that seemed to be fixed in place as his red gaze tracked the monstrous thing that moved in Saber's body.
Yet, those same blood-red eyes betrayed the King of Heroes intent. They told a tale of anticipation and expectation. He was already prepared to settle things.
He just needed a single opening.
The Red Servant felt his fingers twitch, barely restraining the urge to trace a bow and a weapon for it.
It was his own instincts screaming at him to ready a weapon. The moment these two monsters were done with each other, the survivor would come after him. At that moment, even a second's hesitation would lead to death.
And for Ilya's sake he could not afford to lose.
At the same time, Archer didn't dare to move. His Eye of the Mind, honed through countless battles, fought down the reflexive urge. To bring even the slightest variable into this duel could alter the outcome for the worse.
And then it happened.
Once it was entirely too fast for even for his eyes, the killing machine became a blur with each motion. In its place was a streak of blue clad in steel that cut through the blood-soaked sands of Archer's Reality Marble. It slipped through the slightest lapse in Gilgamesh's defense and—
—the all-encompassing grating of steel scraping against steel rang out as the cold aloofness of the royal visage gave way to smug surety.
"I see." Archer heard the King of Heroes' voice faintly on the wind. "You truly are just a machine then."
The thing moved again, faster once more. But the blur suddenly gained clarity as its movements were halted by another rattling length of chain. The sound of its weapon clashing with the golden links set Archer's teeth on edge as Gilgamesh chuckled.
"A golem. An automaton. Thus, I see your limit… You are just predictable."
Saber's stolen flesh blurred out of existence again.
The chain intercepted again.
Gilgamesh's smug self-satisfaction grew again.
The trap became as obvious as the Oldest King shifted his weight. The thing moved like a machine pre-programmed to seek out the most efficient method of killing the enemy. Thus, the moment it spotted an opening it would move to capitalize on it.
And the trap would be sprung the moment it was guided to the false opening.
The demon blade was true and fast. With a twist of space across the exposed neck, the slash that would have beheaded him instead appeared across Saber's back. Cleaving through the flesh, slicing into her shoulder blades, green mist seeped out of the wound along with blood.
The machine stumbled forward in its stolen flesh.
And then it was over.
The Gates of Babylon were thrown wide open. The rain of blades was instantly unleashed. A ceaseless discharge of glinting silver gave way to an impossibly destructive force as they rained down like bullets from a machine gun from every angle and side.
Archer was forced to divert his eyes and shield Ilya as the resulting shockwave threw up a red veil of dust. The howl of the wind deafened the world as it whipped at his shroud. The small figure within his grasp trembled along with the ground beneath their feet.
Even the tear that had formed in his Reality Marble quivered and shrieked until the hailstorm of destruction ceased.
Archer opened his eyes just as the dust thinned and began to settle…
And the outcome was decided.
Gilgamesh was the one who stood tall. His arms were crossed and his form untouched. In contrast, what was once Saber was now a shredded and mangled thing that was barely recognizable as a human.
Yet Archer's left hand rose to clamp down over Ilya's mouth as she gasped in horror. The girl couldn't see the extent of the damage from their current distance, something he was grateful for all things considered. But even she recognized that thing that was in front of the King of Heroes was a corpse.
Its entire lower body was gone. The torso that remained could barely be called that as it was, a lump of bloody and mangled meat run through a dozen times by the blades from the portals and skewered by the weapons. In fact, it was the very same weapons that had killed it a dozen times over that were keeping the body upright.
A spear had torn straight through the back of their skull, gouging out an eye. The right arm was nothing more than a bloody mesh of blue and red, mashed together where something hadn't so much as torn but sheared away the limb. Even the left arm was a mangled ruin, the gauntlet torn away to reveal three naked fingers with half the appendage gone.
Yet the corpse was still moving.
The monster was still alive.
With only a single eye it stared at Gilgamesh with an unflinching and unnervingly intense gaze as blood and green mist leaked from the numerous mortal wounds. The tenacious thing had somehow managed to keep Saber's flesh alive despite it all. But that was the extent of what was possible.
Even now Archer could feel whatever was tethering her to life was rapidly weakening. The thing was losing its hold on what was left of her body. It wouldn't be long now before it was over.
The Red Servant's fingers twitched.
It was cold.
Somewhere in the depths of Shirou's frayed thoughts he registered that it was colder than it should have been underground. Within the depths where the wind never blew, it should be musty, cloying, and hot. Yet, while he could practically taste and smell of staleness that hung in the air over the crypt, there was an unearthly chill running through the entire thing.
It was so cold that his heavy breath came out in plumes of fog right in front of him.
His body also shivered from head to toe, but he wasn't certain he could solely blame that on the frigid cold. It could have easily been from the pain that wracked his body with every single step. Or the blood loss.
Most likely all three.
Either way, he forced his legs to keep moving. One step. Then another. And another.
He was close now. He could feel that he was so very close. All it would take was just a few more steps…
Shirou abruptly felt himself pitching forward when his foot caught on something. He caught himself, fingers and hands scratching themselves against the hard, precisely chiseled stone walls. The only good part was that he could barely feel the pain since everything hurt.
Then he noticed there was a sigil at his feet, carved into the rock. It was a tree, with two swords stabbed at the foot of the base. He stared at the stone relief, his fogged brain trying in futility to dreg it up from memory until he remembered he had to keep moving and forced his trembling legs that felt like they were about to collapse to march past the sigil and into the tomb itself.
Eventually, deep within the tenebrous darkness of the man-made cavern, Shirou finally spotted a doorway. It was twice his size and finely chiseled from white stone. There was a faint glow radiating from it, a thin layer of soul power present.
He felt a slight quiver on his back that was accompanied by Astraea's whispered voice. A slight wave of relief and comfort filled him at the knowledge she finally regained enough of herself to at least do the equivalent of placing her hand at his back. That she was assuring him that she was still here—still alive.
It gave him the strength to step forward.
He reached out, trembling hand stretching forward and coming to rest at the door.
An abrupt voice shattered the haunting silence of the tomb, startling him. He twisted his neck so his gaze could shift past his shoulder…
It was Selene of Vinland. She was at least twenty paces away, but her voice had bounced off the cavernous walls. It had made her seem much closer as she nearly shouted, "Go no further!"
It wasn't so much a request but a demand. Her voice colored with unabashed horror.
"This place is sacred!" she said. "What you're doing is the highest of sacrilege!"
Shirou hadn't known… nor did he care. He didn't have time to care.
Not when the source of the call was just ahead of him.
So he put strength within his outstretched hand that rested on the door.
Then he pushed.
The sound of a blade being drawn rang out. It rippled through the fog that filled his mind and the translucent, magical blade always at her side was pictured somewhat more vividly than his own thoughts. But it faded as the sound of her metal footfalls trampling over the ambient silence filled the air from her rushing towards him.
And even that was drowned out as the door began to groan.
White stone trembled, knocking loose dust that had accumulated over the ages from its surface. Then the layer of soul energy covering it burst free, like a glass pane shattering from the inside out. It cascaded over his flesh, bathing it like cold water that left him shivering down to his soul even as he felt Astraea pulling the excess into herself.
Without preamble he pushed forward, expecting age and disuse to slow its opening. But they parted smoothly and without any resistance. The end result was Shirou landing flat on his face without even the mind or strength to catch his fall.
It was a miracle that he could even force his arms to lift him up once more as he struggled to get back onto his feet and stand again, barely registering Selene's horrified mutterings of "This is heresy!"
Then, suddenly, her hand was gripping at his tattered cloak. She wrenched him to his feet only to slam him into the granite door, leaving his head to crash into it. The world flashed white behind his eyes and he felt the cold steel of her sword at his neck.
"You ignorant—barbaric—" Such was her outrage that she struggled to form the words before she managed to voice, "Do you have any idea what you've done? Any idea whose tomb you're defiling!?"
As Shirou's vision swam, darkness steadily swallowing the edges and the sensation of warm blood trickling down his flesh anew, the sound of a single, heavy footstep echoed loudly in the sepulchral cavern.
Selene turned. Then the visible flesh that could be made out beneath her helm turned ashen white. She let him go, allowing him to slide down the formerly pristine door as she fell down to her knees at its base beside him.
It was then he came into view.
Descending from the sarcophagus atop the stairs, wreathed in flames of white, there stood a ghost of a man that was somehow more solid than the others they'd seen. Easily twice Shirou's height while standing, his eyes traced over the antediluvian armor and past the broad shoulders to meet the stern visage. Even if he didn't recognize the man's appearance after that, Shirou could never mistake the sheer presence bearing down on them in that moment.
The ancient Boletarian king paid no mind to the kneeling Selene as he descended the stairs, not even sparing her a glance as his focus remained squarely on Shirou.
Then he spoke. "Your body is failing, boy. Your spirit is withering."
"I thought…" He swallowed, the taste of copper sliding down his throat thickly. "I thought you… said you saved …me?"
He remembered that. One of the few things he still remembered was the Old King had said that. He remembered because that was important.
Because if he died he couldn't save Saber.
If he died after that… it would be alright. But not before then. Not before he saved her.
"The damage was more extensive than I believed." The Old King turned his gaze up above them, beyond the stone walls where the world was burning. "The Old One seeks a new world to ravage. I feel it reaching out even now for ever more souls to consume. It will never satisfy its hunger."
Then he turned his gaze back towards Shirou, as if weighing judgement upon his very soul once more…
And the decision was finally made.
"I suppose it was always meant to be this way. There was never any room for half-measures. No room for complacency."
The glow shrouding the first ruler of Boletaria intensified. The white flames began to pulsate, flickering and lashing out. He reached down and grasped Shirou's arm, the touch burning like molten metal searing into his flesh as he was lifted up.
"As said before, so it shall be said once more. Emiya Shirou, you are chosen to bear the mantle of responsibility. To bear the burden of salvation. Take my sword, pursue the final Archdemon, and deliver the Old One to rest once again. This is my edict."
The flames surged, rising higher and higher before pouring over Shirou's skin, searing and burning.
He would have screamed but every muscle in his body from head-to-toe was locked into place. His eyes were unable to look away as they peered into the infinite black depths of the empty eyes behind the ruler's helmet.
"You will obey!"
And upon the Old King's declaration the pale flames swallowed him whole.
The journey through the Archstone sapped whatever strength Rin had left in her.
The magic that transposed her from the world of ruin outside into the Nexus wiped away any semblance of color that had returned to her body. Once more she was reduced to little more than an ashen-toned corpse. She was barely clinging to consciousness and only held upright between Thomas and Urbain's shoulders by the men themselves.
Luckily, the Maiden in Black was expecting them.
The wax covering her eyes was still there, obscuring her vision. But one could almost feel a sense of melancholy from the Dark Lady as she 'looked' over the Magus. Kneeling before the starlit floor, she beckoned the Stockpile Keeper and Saint. "Come."
Thomas and Urbain moved as quickly as they could while trying not to trip over Rin as her toes nearly dragged on the cold, stone stairs on their way down. Once they reached the candle-maiden, they gingerly lowered Rin's body. They rested her head on the moth-eaten cloth that covered the woman's lap while her legs rippled the starlight floor.
Unable to do anything except lay there while straddling the border between consciousness and unconsciousness, Rin still felt the presence of the Maiden in Black's hands as they hovered just above her flesh. Then came the mystifying, potent healing magic as she began her work.
The wheezing rasps accompanied by unrelenting pain settled into soft, stable breathing as every ache that wracked her body was soothed. Every torn sinew mended and every laceration knitted itself closed. The relief that flooded Rin's body was almost enough to bring her to tears despite the fact that she was barely capable of stringing together coherent thoughts.
Once enough of the pain had been bled away, that the haze clouding her mind thinned. Her mind cleared enough that she recognized where she was and the faces of those around her.
"Shi…rou… Sa…ber…" Her voice came out somewhat ragged between breaths. Her mouth was dry, and the acrid smoke and hot ash that she'd breathed in left it irritated and scratchy. She swallowed whatever saliva she could to clear it enough to speak clearly. "Stop staring and go find them."
Thomas looked apologetic. Urbain, on the other hand, looked chagrined. Most likely because she was interrupting his observation of the Maiden in Black's healing magic and was comparing it to his own—not that Rin cared.
After a moment, the Stockpile Keeper straightened his back and turned towards the Archstone. He meant to return back to that place where only ash and ruin awaited to find the other two, despite not being a brave man. But before he could take his first step the Maiden's soft voice cut through the Nexus as a whole.
"There is no need for thee to search further," she said. "The Demon Slayer Shirou will soon return."
A look of relief came across Thomas' face.
Considering what the other side was like, Rin couldn't blame him. But she did notice that the candle-maiden only mentioned one of them. "And what about Saber?"
"Thou shalt know of her once the key is brought.
A number of emotions roiled in Gilgamesh's chest as he observed the lump of meat that was once Saber hanging off his treasured weapons.
Anger. Resentment. Dismay. Even a touch of sorrow.
As a woman he deemed worthy of his collection in itself, Saber did not deserve to meet this fate.
And this, this… thing did not deserve to have her.
Whatever soul-based magic that was fueling the killing machine; it was now spilling out from the numerous wounds his weapons had inflicted, a pervasive hissing noise filling the air as the sickening green vapor poured out.
It would die soon.
And Saber with it.
His lips curled in distaste as his blood-red eyes peered into the dull and passionless remaining one that was once Saber's.
Even as it laid dying it felt nothing.
It would almost be pitiable…if it were not so revolting.
He stepped closer toward it. So close that he could almost reach out and touch it if he deemed to. But no. This thing wasn't worth dirtying his fingers.
Instead, he looked past the broken body and array of weapons skewering it. He peered towards the tear. The rip across realities where the colorless clear fog poured, tainting this pitiful Reality Marble.
The King of Heroes closed his eyes and sharpened his perception of the energies dwelling there. He could still sense the wellspring of power beyond it. Indeed, it was something primeval.
Though not divine nor demonic, it was at least as old as he—the oldest hero in the world.
Perhaps as old as the world itself.
There was no malice from the being. No… if he had to attempt to put it into words what he could sense from its magic, it felt almost… infantile… innocent.
A thing ignorant of the concept of malice or goodness.
The sensation of stirring prana from the dying lump of meat drew his attention back to it. The killing machine was struggling, calling up the dredges of its soul magic like a heart desperately attempting to pump its last ounces of blood before finally giving out.
And still the mindless machine showed no expression.
He raised his hand as a golden ripple formed in the air and prepared to unleash its payload when a biting cold snapped up the length of his arm and stole the air from his lungs. In that moment Gilgamesh's mind went completely white, every thought and feeling stolen from him. Had he not reasserted his will and forced his consciousness to the forefront he wouldn't have regained his senses in time to see the cause as his cold apathetic mask was replaced by a slow, dawning surprise.
The killing machine's remaining three fingers were wreathed in ghostly, silver flames as they sank past his flesh and gripped his very bones. The stolen face broke its impassive mask and showed expression for the first time. A flash of surprise and then...
An endless, ravenous hunger.
There was an irresistible tugging that sucked the strength from his body. Saber's horrific injuries began to heal themselves. Flesh that had been ripped apart began to regrow, bone being wrapped in muscle that was then threaded by flesh.
There was no doubt in his mind at what was happening.
This thing dares to feed on my soul.
Almost reflexively, he jerked his arm to break free of its grasp with as much strength and speed he could muster. The sound of limbs snapping and joints dislocating filled the air. But the grip it had didn't waver for a second.
No, what gave way was everything else.
Saber's mangled corpse was pulled from the blades like meat being ripped from bones by wild animals. With nothing but a torso remaining it dangled from his arm as one lifeless green eye peered into his while the other regrew in its socket along with the portion of the skull that had been pried apart. The longer it kept a hold of him, the quicker his own strength waned—stolen to reform the thieving automaton's damaged flesh.
The golden ripple fired a silver blade that left a streak in the air. The fine edge sliced through flesh and bone alike, and the reformed hand was left a stump—
—only for the other, fully regrown hand to plunge into his stomach, whereupon he suffered a pain unlike any other in the wake of his soul being consumed even faster than before. It had struck very close to his core, replacing an instant death with one that was beyond agonizing.
Then it had the audacity to smile.
Whether reveling in glee at his pain or in the assurance of its victory, it was a smile that didn't belong on her face. Red, hot rage anchored his mind as the golden gateways to his treasury began to open once more in full as they filled the air around them. There could be no more mistakes—he would obliterate every single trace of it from this world before it could demean him or defile her further.
Then there was a rolling surge of prana that lapped over them from the distance.
He turned his gaze to see a dazzling white star touching the earth, a spiraling whirl of energy on the tip of a sword-forged arrow. The red-clad cur with his bow nocked stood in front of a seven-petal flower that cradled the doll behind it as she watched on with her fingers clinging together. It seemed the mongrel knew his reprieve was over and had the vessel of the grail supply as much power as she could into a single arrow.
His furious red eyes met the cold, grey eyes that were fixed onto its target. Then the air screamed as the flash of the broken phantasm cut through the distance in an instant. I won't die to something like this!
His treasury expelled its contents, countless blades to batter the white bullet before it could strike him down. They broke upon a storm of steel as the swords strewn throughout the dusty land rose up to shatter the originals, stirring up the violent winds that drowned out the grinding gears above as the flash swallowed his vision. Then the final gate let loose its greatest defense, a multi-layered shield that plunged into the ground and intercepted the shot before it could hit its mark.
Hurricane-force wind roared as the shield girded against the arrow, the world itself seemingly shaking at the impact of power that had been poured into the single shot. Eventually, it shattered itself and sent white comets streaking about, fragments of the star scattering in every direction and tearing out fissures in the world.
In the end, the Faker's efforts amounted to nothing but a momentary distraction in the wake of the King of Heroes' power.
But that momentary distraction was all the killing machine needed.
Its severed hand regrew amidst the hurricane winds and then plunged into Gilgamesh's, piercing the spiritual core. Thus his inevitable fate was sealed.
As his very soul was slipping away into the killing machine, he felt the fringes of its thoughts on his consciousness. A desire for subservience and hunger that not even his soul could sate. The rage burned across the last vestiges of his mind as he vowed to tear it apart from the inside out before he would be cowed by it.
There was one truth that remained until the stars themselves burned out…
Gilgamesh would not bow to another.
That instinctive sensation of fear that the Hound of Ulster could feel had intensified, telling him that something was deeply amiss within the mansion. The magus was a distraction at best and seemed oblivious to the approaching danger. This farce of a battle had gone on long enough now.
Silver moonlight glinted off the blood-red spear as it cut through the tenebrous shadows given life a final time while a rancorous laughter filled the air along with ruinous poison. The finely cut pieces of the severed shadows lingered in the air before bursting, the countless droplets of the inky, glistening substance turning into a swarm of flittering insects. A horrendous buzzing deafened the world as they swarmed around him, blotting the air as their mandibles that were as sharp as blades tried to pierce his flesh…
Only for a pillar of fire to erupt and swallow the darkness and their creation alike, leaving only the burning smell of scorched earth in its wake. Lancer stood in the circle with a singular rune drawn into it, his spear planted in the ground with one hand on the shaft while the other was alight with prana.
"Let's end this already," he said as he began risting runes in the middle of the air. He couldn't do anything grand with his current rank without preparation, but he knew enough to ensure that the old magus couldn't worm his way out of this. And so points in the surrounding area began to grow alight where runes at the base had been set in advance, becoming a bounded field that steadily closed in.
The rancorous laughter became strained. The writhing darkness from before was congealing as worms that had been scattered about began to be dragged and pulled to a single point and forcibly melded into a single lump of meat that contorted until it was in the shape of a diminutive, short man. "Ahh… what are you…nrgh…!?"
"It wasn't like I wasn't prepared for your tricks," Lancer said, leveling the spear towards him. "Gae—"
The inversion of the world happened again.
Then it cracked.
It was the only way the Servant of the Lance could describe it. The very air, the fabric of space and time itself, shivered. Splintered. Fragmented. And then shattered as if something had been flung through a glass window sending shards flying outwards.
A wave of power washed over him from the direction of the mansion as it surged outwards like a dam being broken open. It such a tangible amount of energy that it would have knocked him over had he not planted his spear onto the ground. Even then he could feel it nipping and clawing at his corporeal form.
The scream birthed from the mouth of the wizened magus was almost inhuman as his form began to undulate in painful spasms as if being overtaken by the riastrad. But it was no battle frenzy. His rotten and naked soul given tangible form by the spell were being eroded entirely, turning into grains of pale green sand that was being washed away by a…
A deep, colorless fog….
In a matter of what couldn't have been even five seconds, it was over. The remains of the soul itself broke down. It disintegrated into the veil of the fog and nothing was left.
Silently, Lancer turned back towards the mansion where an eerie glow bloomed from the center. It was wholly unnatural as red and white bled in the epicenter, releasing a wave of dry and hot air. It seemingly burned his lungs as it clawed at him from the inside, even more acrid that the poison the magus tried to inflict upon him.
To even compare them wasn't remotely feasible. It went far beyond the abomination of a rotten soul that clung to life far beyond his limits. This… this sensation was something… stronger and older…
He could feel the hunger of a predator of some kind that was steadily drawing closer amidst the fog. It was almost enough to make his hand tremble instinctively. He tightened his grip around his spear.
"… Though it wasn't how I planned it, it's done," he said, the connection between Master and Servant linking him to the Young Lady nestled away in safety. "I'm going there."
"I'll make sure Bazett-san gets looked after," came through their connection. "Fight as you please, Lancer."
And with that, a grin stretched across Lancer's face. Whatever was waiting for him on the other side mansion was something dangerous beyond all reckoning. But even so…
The Hound of Ulster would hunt.
Every ache and pain had been bled away by the time the Maiden's hands pulled back.
That wasn't to say that she didn't still feel tired and drained. Not just in her mind and body, but in her magic, emotions, and willpower itself. The events of the day had been trying, but she'd settle for the easing of her physical pain for now.
Slowly, Rin sat up with the sensation of Thomas' hand gently pushing on her back and helping her to get upright. Looking over her shoulder to the man, he offered her a hesitant smile. She tried to return it but couldn't feel if her lips managed to succeed.
Then her eyes settled on the hilt of Storm Ruler. It was secured to his belt. A sound bubbled up from the back of her throat as she held out her hand.
The message carried and he handed it back.
Her fingers curled around the hilt of the jagged remnants of the weapon that was clearly broken. But the magicks within were still strong along the hilt, where the most important parts were concentrated. She would need to consult Scirvir to see if it could still be useful then…probably Yuria as well.
Forcing her stiff muscles to move, and letting out a small hiss when they did, she looked to the candle maiden and asked once more, "Where's Shirou?"
She didn't know how long she'd been on the mend, but it had been long enough as far as Rin was concerned. If he wasn't here in the next ten minutes, she was going to go look for him and Saber herself. No matter what anyone said.
"He comes," she said, stepping onto the starlight floor with her lamplighter's pole in hand. "The wait will not be long. Gather thy strength whilst there is time."
Rin sucked in a sharp breath at that. The implications of the soft-spoken words didn't escape her. "Did Saber fail? Is Archdemon still alive?"
Having very little patience at the moment, Rin tried to get a clear answer with her voice tight. "No, as in 'it's not dead' or as in 'she's not'?"
The Maiden in Black only answered with silence as her wax-covered gaze turned in the direction of the Boletarian Archstone. The gateway pulsed, unseen power flowing from it and spreading across the Nexus. Then something came through.
Stumbling into their haven with unsure legs, Selene of Vinland emerged. The woman's visage was tight, her expression unreadable. The gold-clad paladin then stepped out of the way as another ripple threaded the Nexus.
Then Shirou emerged… looking far better than he had any right to.
The pale pallor of his skin from the last time she'd seen him was gone entirely. The burns, cuts, and scrapes that he'd accumulated from the intense battles on the other side had all but vanished. And beneath his unblemished flesh, she could sense the raw power running through his body—a massive charge coursing through his form to where it felt like she was standing too close to a live wire and felt her hairs prickling from it.
But, despite that, when their eyes met once more she saw how they were sunken from weariness. Permeated by a deep, unfathomable exhaustion. Much like her, he was just…
"Slayer of Demons." The soft, melodic voice of the candle maiden lightly echoed off the walls as she held her hand out towards him. "The second half is needed to open the way."
As the two exchanged glances, Rin's eyes bounced back and forth. There was clearly some unspoken understanding between them now that wasn't there before. "Second half of what exactly?"
"…The second half of Allant," Shirou answered, slowly reaching behind his back for a blade that Rin only now noticed had been strapped beside Astraea. "The part he discarded to be consumed by the other half."
The reaction that ran throughout the men immediately told her it was no ordinary blade. Thomas immediately drew back, eyes wide in disbelief as he spoke with a hitch in his throat. "Th…The Sword of the King!"
The two smiths, Boldwin and Ed, actually looked up from their forges with unrestrained interest as Shirou descended the stairs. His steps were eerily quiet when nearly every other sound would reverberate within the cavernous Nexus as he ventured past them, until he came to a stop in front of the Maiden in Black. Then he presented the sword to her with both hands, holding it out like a ceremonial piece to be passed on.
Her free hand brushed the hilt of the blade gingerly before her fingers wrapped around it. Then she lifted the massive blade singlehandedly like it weighed nothing at all. "I will open the way. Take this time to prepare."
"…They're going to face it again?" Selene inquired, her tone lacking in the aloof standoffishness that Rin had come to expect from her. "The Archdemon?"
"'tis their fate," she answered, her wax-covered gaze fixed on the blade before she turned her back to them all. "As 'twas his, so long ago."
As usual, her words carried context that eluded Rin. But the mention of the Archdemon brought her mind back to the question she had before. About Saber and what happened to her.
She looked to Shirou for clarity. He only shook his head as he took a step back and motioned for her to follow. The starlight floor rippled with every step they took while the dark lady moved in the opposite direction.
Then, taking her place in the very center of the complex sigils and lines of power that marked the base of the Nexus, a sudden wind stirred beneath her bare feet. Power that had been capped before slowly trickled free, her unkempt hair and moth-eaten clothing fluttering softly. Then the trickle turned into a surge and the wind turned into a billowing gale.
Rin was nearly knocked off her feet. The fierce wind hit almost like a tangible force, and only her martial training allowed her to catch herself by putting her foot forward in time. Shielding her eyes and mouth with her arms, she peered to the side to see that Selene and Shirou were much the same—Thomas had been thrown back entirely.
As the wind lessened, radiance spilled from the sigils. Then the markings began to turn, and Rin took note that they were arranged in a pattern now that they were in motion. As they wheeled themselves into place slowly, her mind connected the dots.
What they were standing on was a lock and Shirou had just brought the key to it.
Now it was slowly opening.
On the distant hill, from which the shockwave of his arrow had scattered everything not nailed down, Archer watched as the golden servant faded to dust that scattered into the wind amidst the wreckage of vanishing treasures and broken copies.
In the end, he had made a mistake.
He'd thought the battle was over, so he decided to immediately eliminate Gilgamesh and whatever remained of the creature in a single blow. But the King of Heroes, arrogant to the end, chose to try and preserve himself by using everything he could bring to bear against the attack. And in doing so had possibly cost them the only chance they had to eliminate that thing.
He could feel the waves of power rolling off of Saber's reformed body even at this distance, standing as if it had never been damaged once the last dregs of Gilgamesh's soul were siphoned away. It was a tangible thing, buffeting him like storm-churned waves breaking against an outcrop along the coast. It had become even more powerful than before, when it could match the Oldest Hero in legend…
A sliver of what he could only describe as fear snaked down his spine as he felt his Reality Marble began to split apart.
The monster was anchoring itself between worlds using its newfound power. Driving it down like a stake that pierced through the empyrean fabric between realities and kept it tethered. He could see the overlapping fields of time and space as they began crashing together, his own world eroded away by the fog until it touched down to the forest around the estate.
It had created a connection between the world beyond the tear and their own reality. On one side was the world of white stone castles, death, and ruin. On the other was Ilya's home, the forest around it, and the city beyond it still teeming with life.
And between it all was the inverted world engraved on Archer's soul.
The part of him that was a Counter Guardian could feel it the moment reality itself screamed. This thing was an anathema that was crossing the boundary. It shattered a barrier that had been inviolable and should have remained such.
He needed to end it. "Trace… on…"
No sooner than a new arrow came into his grasp did the blank, stolen eyes fall onto him. His own experience, and bearing witness to its previous feats, drove his body to move as the creature's blurred out of existence at a rate even his eyes could barely perceive. The arrow was nocked and fired towards the spot where he'd been, a glinting silver streak that speared through the air towards the abomination's head as its blade was buried within the ground.
But the sound of breaking steel rang out. It had pivoted and swung the demonic blade in its grasp, shattering the silver bullet. Then its gaze turned to the side…
And the air froze as Archer realized his second mistake in the space between a heartbeat.
The thing that had taken over Saber's body consumed the soul itself. Even Servants weren't beyond its capability to consume, and it grew stronger in accordance because of that. Gilgamesh had been the strongest opposition and thus it had taken priority in removing him.
But the vessel of the Einzbern was meant to house the souls of the Servants that had fallen in the war. Caster, Rider, Berserker, and Assassin had all fallen to this point. The near-defenseless girl would be a veritable banquet with how replete she was with the souls of heroes.
It would be unstoppable.
Ilya jostled from behind the seven-petaled flower that spread further at his shout, sparking the ignition that set her into motion. The weapons that lined his world sprung up from the ground, fell from above, and cut through the air even faster than Gilgamesh's as they were already present instead of being conjured from the gates. They formed a wall of countless blades between them as he darted to get to Ilya from the side.
Yet, in his Mind's Eye, he could perceive the futility of the struggle as it was.
His blades weren't strong enough to stand against it. One swing of that sword alone would present enough power and force to shatter every single blade that he could bring to bear. The steel rain would pepper the dry and lifeless earth.
His strongest shield was little more than paper before that weapon. Even as Ilya's vast reserves allowed him to fortify it to withstand nearly every other weapon within the war, it would shear through every layer. The reflection of its damage would tear apart Archer's body and, while he'd be able to regenerate the damage near-instantly, in that moment it would get to Ilya.
Then it would consume the souls within her in a mere heartbeat and become an unstoppable threat upon the world.
Then, wouldn't it be better to kill her himself?
The Counter Guardian mindset surfaced with the solution to the insurmountable problem. In a single thought, he could turn the blades and obliterate the vessel, letting the contents scatter. That would prevent the absolute worst outcome at the expense of a life that was already lost, so mercifully quick and painless that it'd never feel it.
What was one more stain on his blood-soaked hands if it would save everyone else?
"I'm sorry, Archer."
He recalled the weeping girl in front of him, staring down at her feet. The girl who had been born for the war itself and deprived of any joy to be found. The girl who wept when she'd felt the disappearance of the Servant who'd fought for her.
"Ilya, as long as I am here, you will not be hurt."
Then he felt it—a presence breaching the domain of his Reality Marble from the anchor where reality was pierced.
His hawk-like eyes caught the bluish tail of a red comet rising from the earth to the sky. The face of a warrior with a maniacal grin on his face. The piercing eyes that hungered for blood fixed on the exposed back of the abomination—
—and a streak of crimson cut through the sky like a bloody comet. The creature instinctively whirled around, swinging the demonic blade. An unstoppable force met an unmovable object.
And the world was abruptly dyed in blood-red tinge.
Buying enough time for Archer to move.
He darted forward and scooped Ilya into his bloodstained arms as he cleared the blast-zone, sheltering her from the dust and smoke as her long hair danced wildly in the wind.
"Ilya, are you alright?"
Her tiny frame shook wordlessly within his grasp. Trembling as crystalline tears dripped down to the parched earth. Even so, he felt her head nod slightly against his chest.
A breath he didn't realize he'd been holding escaped from his mouth as he lowered her to the ground. Then his eyes darted to the side. The blue-clad spear thrower had landed nearby. "Lancer."
"Archer," Lancer said offhandedly, his red eyes that were a sign of divine heritage only sparing the small girl on the ground a glance before turning back to where his spear landed. "Looks like even that wasn't enough, huh…"
The prompt caused Archer to steal a glance; in the newly made crater, rimmed by molten earth, green mist seethed like steam as it wrapped around the regenerating body of the stolen Servant. And those stolen eyes fixed onto the both of them with clear hostility.
Steel-gray eyes met with the blood-red pair.
The wordless message carried.
Lancer fell into a crouch, one hand on the ground as his spear rematerialized in the other. Kanshou and Byakuya appeared in Archer's hands, his grip tight. Then a warm wind blew across the dusty field…
—Divine skill, flawless and firm.
He flung his swords. Charging them with as much magical energy as he could, he flung them from both sides. Whirling white and black blades cut an arc as they crossed the distance, followed by another parallel projection that he flung at a different angle. They curved into one another, all converging on the creature before it could finish its regeneration—
—only for the sound of shattering steel to ring out as the creature swung its arm and the blade it carried moved like liquid metal. Even reinforced with magical energy the blades weren't nearly enough, with the two thrown first being shattered to pieces.
And then Lancer was in front of Saber's body in an instant, the point of the demonic lance already being thrust forward and invading its territory to deliver a kill. Lancer was the fastest Servant within the war. The moment the blades were within range to be destroyed, he moved so quickly that even his afterimage was a blur the peerless eyes of Archer.
Even with the reaction speed it possessed, the stolen body's attempt to avoid a fatal blow was met with the armor it wore being pierced and goring clean through its side in a shower of blood. But the creature felt no pain, and so it braced against the momentum that would have driven it several meters back with its rear leg. Then it attempted a counterattack instantly by twisting its body while grasping the haft buried in it and swinging its blade down in an arch to cut Lancer from head to toe…
—Strength moves mountains.
That was when the third set of blades from Archer came into view, charged and sent flying forward —where they impaled the upraised arm and pierced the braced leg.
The swing went wide as Lancer twisted his body, tearing out the spear and bringing his leg around. The kick was driven into its abdomen and sent the creature skirting along the ground as its braced leg gave out. The third set of married blades whirled past his head in that moment, angled to pierce the heart and head.
But the colorless, thick fog that poured out of the tear like a miasma wreathed it before they could connect, forming the framework for ghostly wings of white fire on its back. The blades buried within the arm and leg shattered, while the thrown pair were crushed with another swing of the sword.
That was when Lancer rushed in once more, bloodied spear thrusting forward for another piercing blow. But this time the demonic blade met with it, an impact that jostled the air. Undeterred, he drew it back and let loose a flurry of blows so fast that only flashes of light and sparks marked where they clashed before Archer's eyes.
—Blade cuts water.
The gears overhead grated as the steel-producing factory kicked into overdrive once more, churning out more swords to dot the landscape as the broken swords from before were replaced. As the factory's output reached its maximum capacity, his bow reappeared in his hand and a nameless sword-turned-arrow was charged with prana until it reached its capacity and he took aim.
Archer had surmised during its fight with Gilgamesh it had been growing more accustomed to the strength it possessed in Saber's body. Now that it had received a surge of power from the soul of the Oldest Hero, it was in the same position. It was working out its new strength and testing the limits as it competed with a faster enemy.
A fierce yet calculating look crossed the spearman's visage as he fought, sparks marking the points where they clashed and spouts of blood where there had been a hit—only for the underdeveloped wings to bleed and stitch the injuries shut. No doubt he'd reached the same conclusion.
They needed to kill it before it could grasp the depths of strength drawn from its newest soul.
—Life approaches the Imperial Villa.
"Dodge it! Lancer!" He loosed the broken phantasm, a nameless weapon primed with as much magical energy as it could contain until its physical form began to crackle. Firing from a straight line, he shot the arrow as if he was going to send it straight through the blue-clad Servant in order to hit the creature.
Lancer disengaged from the flurry of blows, evading the shot and breaking away as the arrow cut through the air straight towards the aberrant Saber. The broken phantasm detonated on impact and the body was sent flying back like a ragdoll. The armored chest piece was blown apart and along with it a great deal of the stolen flesh, but it managed to get its feet beneath it and immediately began regenerating the damage.
That was when the steel rain converged to shred the creature and its stolen body to pieces without mercy. Legendary blades. Holy blades. Blades from the beginning of history to the end, all replicas of phantasms and housing numerous exotic effects, descended downwards to skewer the monster.
But Archer held no illusion that any of them would be more effective than when Gilgamesh did the same. It had proven resilient to destruction through such means even before it had devoured his soul. They only served to hold the thing in place long enough for Lancer to use his trump card.
Red lighting that could win over even time and space escaped his grasp using the weapon made of the bones of Curruid. The cursed spear and its sharpened tip broke through the stolen body because it had already happened the moment the name was called. Even the laws of this Reality Marble adhered to causality being flipped on its head and so the outcome was already decided as the spear found its way into the heart.
—Two great men, shared life.
And countless thorns blossomed to destroy the body from the very inside out.
Ilya averted her eyes from the gruesome display. Torn from within and without to ensure a kill without peer, the Servants of the Bow and Lance consigned the compromised Saber to execution. It was too cruel of a death even by her own standards.
…Yet, the frozen mana within the air began to crack. Splinter. Then exploded outwards as from the eviscerated remains blew a harsh gale that shattered the blades impaling it as the wisps of ghostly flames that formed wings at its back unfurled in full, expanding to thrice Saber's height.
The sheer magnitude of power cascading off its regrown body slammed into Archer like a steel wall that even he had to grit his teeth and brace himself to stand against.
Lancer landed close by, his spear re-materializing in his hand. The warrior tossed him a grim look that said much without words. Archer offered the faintest of nod in understanding.
There were few things in the world that could have shrugged off that attack. Those with divine protection, near-divine luck, or a means of revival after death—typically things that were themselves capable of altering destiny.
If it were those things, then they could eventually overwhelm it as everything had some weakness.
Divine protection could be stripped away by its bane.
Auto-resurrection could be overtaxed to the point of exhaustion or perhaps complete obliteration would suffice.
Luck would eventually run out on its own.
I doubt we'd be so fortunate that it's any of those, he mused as his fists clenched tightly. He wasn't so optimistic as to believe that it wasn't a worst-case scenario.
They were facing something possessing an Authority akin of the Gods themselves.
Shirou sat at the base of a pillar silently as he watched as Maiden in Black work her magic. The seals resting beneath the Nexus were unraveling as the sword, Demonbrandt, spun slowly in the air in front of her. It was a key slowly turning open a lock that had long been sealed shut.
He sat alone with Rin having ascended the stairs above, dragging the weeping Yuria behind her. The young woman had been inconsolable since she was told of Biorr's death from what he gathered. Despite that, Rin apparently deemed it necessary to bring her along to discuss if the broken Stormruler could be salvaged somehow. Shirou couldn't really fathom what role Yuria would play in that conversation, but he couldn't spare enough curiosity at the moment to guess given his own condition.
He didn't feel any pain, but he knew something was still wrong with his body. The best way he could describe it would be like… a broken bone. Something that had been snapped, set back into place, and held together by a cast.
Whatever the Old King had done was holding him together. It would keep him moving, the power thrumming throughout his body leaving him feeling stronger than he could have imagined. He was grateful for it since it meant he could keep fighting, but something was still fundamentally wrong with him on a core level and it bothered him.
His silent contemplations were pushed back when the sound of footfalls came to a stop behind him. He turned his head to see Thomas kneeling there. In his hands was a plate filled to the brim with steamed vegetables and meat, freshly prepared.
"You need to eat, Master Shirou," he said. Everything from the tone of his voice to the curve of his brow radiated concern, unhidden and blatant. "Recover your strength."
While he appreciated the thought, Shirou wasn't sure if he could hold down any food at the moment. Still, he didn't even entertain the idea of refusing anything that might help with the upcoming battle. He would take everything he could use, no matter how small.
His body moved almost robotically, forcing the food down and drinking the water that was offered. The food wasn't bad, but the taste of it just wasn't something he could savor at the moment. Even so, he showed his gratitude with a, "Thank you, Thomas."
The older man meekly smiled in response. He just wanted to be helpful in whatever way he could. Thomas then stood up to return the dishes, but before he could leave metal greaves climbing down the stone steps drew both their gazes upwards.
It was Selene Vinland, walking down the curving stairs with pieces of the dark silver armor in hand.
Shirou wasn't sure how you could carry the pieces of a suit of armor with enough poise to walk with as much grace as she did, but she pulled it off as easily as breathing. Still, he wondered what was wrong with the suit to have her carry it away from where she had all but enshrined it—a monument to her fallen brother. Were there repairs that might be needed from Ed or Boldwin?
But rather than turning into the alcove that housed the blacksmiths, she approached him instead. His back straightened in mild shock as she knelt in front of him. Then she slowly and silently laid out the individual pieces of the armor before him.
"Is… something amiss, Lady Vinland?" Thomas asked, his tone doing little to hide his confusion that was shared with Shirou.
Selene closed her eyes, her shoulders dipping as she released a soft breath. She tilted her head up silently, as if to gather her composure. Then her eyes opened once more and met his gaze.
"I would ask that you do the Vinland family the honor of accepting my brother's armor as your own."
Shirou's expression shifted back and forth between surprise and confusion. Though he didn't consider himself the best at reading people, it was clear that Selene tolerated him at best until now. "I…ahh… why?"
Her response was succulent in comparison to his. "You are to fight the Archdemon, and you carry the spirit of the ancient hero, King Doran."
Thomas visibly shifted in surprise at that.
"The Old King is the hero of the ancient war and the founder of the Kingdom," Selene continued. "If I could play even a small part by aiding in the defeat of the Archdemon and the Old One, then… the Vinland Family would be redeemed."
The proud woman then bowed her head so low that it almost touched the ground. It was so stiffly done that Shirou couldn't be sure if it was because she was fighting against her pride or it just went against her natural body language.
"I would ask you to allow me to do my small part," her voice nearly cracked as she finished. "Please grant my brother the chance to reclaim his honor."
Shirou remained silent in the wake of her plea, unsure of what to say. Not that he was in a position to refuse even if he wanted. Not when Saber was counting on him.
He leaned forward, hand outstretched, and touched the gauntlet of forged of dark silver. No sooner than the cool steel brushed his fingers did he feel Astraea's soul pulse from the sword beside him like a heartbeat. One that was stronger than he had felt since her show of strength against the Dragon God.
Whatever uncertainty he had faded away in that moment.
Rin did her best to ignore stinging phantom pain that ran from the tips of her fingers to her knuckles, leaving the digits to twitch every now and again. There was no physical problem to speak of between her own regenerative spell, her Crest, and the Maiden in Black. She was as good as new—physically speaking.
Even so, Rin could still taste the bitter smoke on her tongue and feel the hot ash against her skin. Her nails felt like they were on the verge of falling off when she grabbed Yuria and forced her to come along, like gnawing insects were chewing at them. Needles slipped between the bends of her fingers when handed off the remnants of Storm Ruler to Scirvir.
They were phantom sensations but felt real enough that it was a struggle to keep that fact in mind. It could easily be an aftereffect from overusing the Demon Souls within her throughout everything. Or channeling so much power into the Soul Ray when she blew out that Dragon God's chest.
Or it could be the fact that she was just about done with everything mentally. Saber was compromised from what Shirou had told her. The Archdemon was on the other side of the veil and in their world. Very big issues that had to be addressed in very short order.
As it was, Rin felt that she was being spread thin. Like a rubber band stretched almost to the breaking point, only being held together by the most tenuous of tethers. Her very spirit wanted to stop and rest—and she'd love nothing more than to do so.
But she didn't have the luxury or time for that as she conversed with Scirvir, leaving Yuria to cry quietly for Biorr at the pillar beside them. "Before you said that most of the magic was in the hilt of the sword. Can it still store more?"
"Oh, oh dear…" The stuttering scholar fretted over the shattered blade, looking like he might just start crying himself at the destruction of a priceless relic of a people now long gone. "This was a priceless—"
"Scirvir, running low on time here," she said impatiently, tapping her foot against the ground. "Still have a Demon to kill. Can it work?"
"W-what, but…" He stumbled a moment over his words before asking, "Did you n-not already slay the A-Archdemon?"
"Complicated, but we're gonna try again now and this'll be our last shot." She pointed back down to the remnants of the blade. "Can it still work to store magical energy?"
Thankfully, he didn't rebuke her for its destruction as he began turning it in his hand and looking it over. If he had, she might have just punched him with how wound up she was. Especially since as far as she was concerned breaking a magical sword to kill the largest dragon she would, hopefully, ever see in her life was a good bargain.
More so if she could still make use of its capacity to store energy.
After an agonizingly long moment, Scirvir finished looking it over. "Mayhap the shards cou—"
"There's no point in it," Yuria said dejectedly, pausing in her weeping to spout out bitter words. "They'll fall next. Then there'll only death awaiting us in the end. What's the point in even struggling anymore?"
Had Rin been rested, she would have come up with a more… delicate manner of rebuttal to that. But time was short and she had enough on her plate. So, she was cold and blunt as she spoke in a very firm, very rigid tone. "Shut. Up."
The woman fidgeted at the frost in her tone and glare of the magus' eyes.
"Next to the Maiden, you're probably the most powerful magic-user in the Nexus," Rin continued with heated words. "Yet you spent every day here doing nothing unless someone else forces you into it, just trying to avoid being found despite all the power you have. Then you sit here and cry about the death of someone who was doing something and tell us it's pointless when we're trying to settle things!?"
Rin recalled the touch of Yuria's primal magic, potent and replete enough to subjugate the souls of the three Demons she had within her. And it was done through sheer willpower. No caging like the Maiden. No formulas like Freke. No dogma like Urbain.
All of that power just being wasted, when they needed every scrap of it they could get their hands on at the moment. It just made her so furious that she stomped the ground to vent before pointing at the witch. "Biorr died saving me rather than going quietly because he believed that we could do something about that Archdemon! So rather than sit here and join in your pity party, I'm going out there and I'm going to kill the damn thing!"
The woman looked on the verge of falling pieces by the time Rin was done, and she wasn't thrilled about it herself. But she meant every word of it. There was nothing to be gained by crying for the dead when there was still something left to be done. The life he'd given to save her own was better spent on resolving things, so that was what she was going to do.
Pulling her glare from the weeping witch aside, she turned to Scirvir who just seemed stunned and more than a little terrified as she said for a final time, "Can. It. Still. Work?"
He hesitantly nodded. "It c-can't hold as much as before, but it should be able to."
"Then dump as much of your magical power as possible into it now."
Scirvir looked to her, blinking and perplexed. "I-I… huh?"
"I'm going to have every single magic-user in the Nexus barring the Maiden pack as much as they can so I can use it," she said. It might not have been possible to regain the same level of power used against the Dragon God, but it should at least be enough to do something to the Archdemon. The only reason she wouldn't ask the Maiden was because her power was just outright something she wasn't sure could be processed by a human and now wasn't the time to find out.
Scirvir hesitated as Rin tapped her foot impatiently. That was when the ruffling of dark clothes was followed by the Storm Ruler remnant being pried from his hand by a slender and pale one instead—Yuria.
Her eyes were glistening and red from crying, the tears having left trails down her cheek. But there was a coldness behind them now where before they'd been nothing more than wellsprings of sorrow. Her lips pursed and fixed into a determined expression as she grabbed hold of the hilt and held it with both hands as she whispered two little words.
Then there was a wave of power… no. To call it a wave was terribly wrong as a nebulous shadow emerged from the thin frame of the witch. It was akin to a living chimera cobbled together by dozens of beasts, writhing, ebbing, and thrashing as the chains that kept it pinned down were loosened link by link.
Rin and Scirvir were both forced to step back, if not from the massive amount of magic being released that eclipsed their own then because of the pervasive frost that covered her tattered clothes spreading along the dark marble of the Nexus around her. The only reason it probably didn't go further was because of the hilt of the blade within her grasp.
The remnants of Storm Ruler greedily swallowed the power that was being offered as if it were a Demon itself. But despite the fact that they were only feeling the very fringes of her power it was still like being in the center of a winter storm. The biting wind washing against Rin chilled her to the bone as she shielded her eyes.
"S-stop!" Surprisingly, whatever hesitation Scirvir showed before vanished as the stumbling scholar fought the freezing winds to step forward. "Stop! You'll kill yourself at this rate!"
True to his word, the chaotic nature of Yuria's power left her pallor to once more take on a ghostly pale hue, dark veins snaking up her skin that seemed to shrivel up. Dark and stringy hair writhed wildly as it was dyed a ghostly white hue, in contrast to how the whites of her eyes turned pitch-black and were ringed by dark circles. Last, her irises became as icy blue as her lips, and plumes of frost escaped her mouth as her frozen tears scattered into diamond dust.
Pulling free his peculiar talisman, the Wanderer muttered a miracle under his breath and a sacred light wreathed the man to ward off the demonic cold. He then fought the billowing winds until he managed to grab hold of the woman's fingers that were nearly frozen to the hilt. Despite the ice trying and failing to grab purchase onto him and her own desperate struggling, he somehow managed to succeed in tearing the remnants of the artifact away and tossed it aside as Yuria all but collapsed on the spot.
The Storm Ruler scraped against the frost-laden floor until it landed near Rin's feet, where she spotted it pulsing and glowing with power. She picked it up and felt the unearthly chill nestled within the blade, the ice threatening to gnaw under her nails. There was so much power compacted into it that it was akin to several years of power stored within one of her jewels—several times over.
Looking over, she saw Scirvir focused on a healing miracle. Its soft glow radiated out from the talisman, the reflection of the light off the frozen marble washing over the downed witch. She was lying supine on the floor, wheezing plumes of white-and-blue frost with all the color drained from her skin as hypothermia began setting in.
Words of thanks were on her lips but died in her throat. There was really nothing she could say that wouldn't come off as insulting considering what she said earlier. No, the best she could do was get Urbain up here to help before there was a second person who died to help her today.
With another silent apology, Rin spun on her heels and departed to do just that. The man was where she expected so she sent him along his way to help before making her way towards the starlit floor where the mechanism unwinding the gateway was about undone—everything would be over soon, one way or another.
Her legs came to a stop when she spotted Shirou near the bottom. He was clad into dark-silver armor, donned and fitted to his body. The armor seemed to have a certain sheen to it even in the dim light of the Nexus.
For his part, he took notice of her after a moment as she stood a few stairs above him. Their eyes met. Neither said anything for a few breaths as various thoughts ran throughout their minds.
Then Rin offered him a small smile. "You clean up well."
He returned a smile of his own that was somewhat weary. "Ed's coming by with the helmet in a second."
Even though she nodded as though it was a good thing, Rin honestly wasn't sure if it mattered. The power Demons could bring to bear eclipsed any protection that armor could offer. Biorr's armor didn't save him against the Dragon God once he'd offered up his shield, no matter how well made it was—she could only imagine the Archdemon would be much the same.
Then again… maybe every little bit helped.
The Blacksmith soon came out of the shadowed archways that hid his workshop, helmet in hand. He handed over the last piece of armor to him. "Here ya go, lad."
Shirou nodded and then placed the helm over his head.
For a moment. Rin forgot to breathe.
She recognized this armor…
Only not this one. Not this way. Ghostly. Wisps of white fire wreathing it as it beckoned they follow.
Shirou, as ever… was oblivious.
"It's a perfect fit, but I don't remember giving you my head size."
The old dwarf shrugged. "The metal knows how it wants to be shaped. Ya just gotta listen. Tis fate ya wear this armor—lead it to new glories."
She could see him shift with uncertainty until he grasped Astraea to strap her once more to his back. The sword seemed to be the perfect match to the armor itself, and there was a pulse that emanated from the blade like a heartbeat the moment they were reunited. It made her throat go dry and left tension threading her body.
Then there was no more time as the grinding of steel against steel rang out. The massive statue above lowered its blade to the pool of starlight at its base, the tip of the sword touching the seal. Lines of fire and cosmic energy unfurled like a ribbon wrapping a box coming undone as the Maiden stepped back.
The portal opened before her, a rip in reality coming into existence.
"The way is open," her serene voice said softly as she turned in their direction, her gaze settling onto them from behind the wax covering her eyes. "The Archdemon awaits thee, Slayers of Demons."
Rin felt static running along her skin just being this distance from the portal. Her heart began to quicken when she considered what was on the other side was their world… the Archdemon… Saber...
Fear stalled her legs before she could step forward. Not fear of her own life, but fear of failure and what that meant.
But then cool metal slipped around her hand. She looked down to see it was a gauntleted hand—Shirou's. She could almost feel his heart thudding within the cage of steel he'd wrapped himself in.
No doubt he was feeling the same fear, saddled with the weight of knowing what failure would cost them. Even so, she also knew that he'd step forward in a moment and keep moving forward. And she couldn't just let him take the lead from her.
Her pride wouldn't allow. From the beginning that was the one thing she held firmly to—scared or not. The pride of a magus drove her this far, so it'd see her through to the end.
Rin set her jaw firmly into place and freed her hand from his grasp. Then she stepped forward.
Shirou walked forward of his own accord as expected.
Reality rippled as they marched past it.
Pitched combat between Lancer, Archer, and the possessed Saber came to a grinding halt as they looked to fabric between the three different realities as it rippled once more. A new portal sprung into existence and fog billowed out from it, the colorless gloom rolling forth like an onrushing wave. It swallowed the parched and dry earth
Archer's hands clenched at the thought of what else would crawl from the tear between the veil as reality continued to splinter under the weight of just one of these abominations. If something else, some other monster like this thing in Saber's body, emerged…
Then he saw what stepped through.
Or rather, who.
The first was Rin. His former Master was dressed in dark clothes, her form rigid as she stepped foot on the battlefield between a monster and Servants as if she had returned to where she belonged. But he could smell the scent of smoke still clinging onto her, the tang of blood and fire that he was all too familiar with.
And beside her was Emiya…
But he wasn't alone.
Archer could see the air shimmering around him. There was an ethereal, ghostly flame that was draped over his steel-clad frame like a regal mantle of a crownless king. And the dead clutched to his armor and blade so tightly they may as well have been the same.
He doubted the fool was aware of it, but he couldn't pay it any mind as the creature that had stolen Saber's body fixed its gaze onto them.
Slivers of emotions betrayed the inhuman nature as the empty eyes narrowed slightly and the gauntleted hands tightened around the demonic blade that seemed alien in its grasp. Whether it was recognition, irritation, or fear was beyond his ability to tell. But the fact that it elicited any sort of reaction was noteworthy in itself.
"The lady and kid from before have shown themselves, huh?" Lancer mused while eying the pair. No doubt he felt the same thing that Archer did. "They've changed as well… though at least they still feel human enough."
"…The last thing we need is that thing getting stronger because one of them allowed themselves to get consumed," Archer said, shifting his gaze over towards Ilya for a moment while she was sheltered by his shield. Her own eyes seemed torn as she gazed upon the newcomers as well. "Get ready, Lancer."
Then he pushed away all idle thoughts as the creature moved towards the fool clad in armor.
The Servants of the Lance and Bow followed.
Saber's voice echoed throughout the ruin-strewn fog, eclipsing the sigh of the shifting sea lapping at her greaves. A prisoner within her own mind, she could only watch as her body rushed towards her Master. The demonic blade that had matched her own was chambered for a swift, decisive swing that would cleave through the armor he'd donned and cut him down where he stood.
"Fate is a cruel thing, isn't it? To once more stand amidst a battlefield and bring your steel against one who admired you above all others. As fellow monarchs, you and I are not so different."
Saber snarled at the violation of her memories. "We're nothing alike!"
He...no, it laughed. It laughed with cruel amusement in its voice as the phantom of the once-king reappeared in front of her.
"During our rule, we did everything that was asked of us. Everything that was required to bring our kingdoms to prosperity. And for a time, it was so. Yet, despite every sacrifice that was made… in the end, our kingdoms reached the same conclusion."
"That was by your own hands," Saber argued. "You are the one who brought misery and destruction to your kingdom and its people by seeking out the power of the Soul Arts! Ostrava, your own son, died by your own creation's hand!"
Humor painted his tone as he replied with, "Oh? And did your kingdom not collapse because of your actions leading to that grand betrayal? Did you not strike down your own 'son' as well?"
Saber's throat tightened and her heart felt like a vice tightened around it as the mist warped the landscape and everything beyond into a mirror image of that fateful day at Camlann. Opposite her was no longer Shirou but instead another knight, one clad in grey and bore a horned helm.
"Your kingdom was fated for destruction from invaders and, in trying to alter that fate, you threw away what makes you human for the power to save it. But in doing so, many began to question whether a King who wasn't human should rule. You took a Queen who sacrificed her right to live as a normal woman, you drove your loyal knight into becoming a rage-filled monster who slew his own allies, and you rejected the one who would be heir because they lacked what you felt was the capacity to be King. In doing so the seeds of destruction were sown by your own hands…"
He stopped circling her as the events took their course. The horned helm was split open to reveal a face and eyes that were too familiar and the blow that would be fatal to her was struck. He then came to a stop next to her and said the words she didn't want to hear.
"Is that not the reason you sought to have it all undone? The reason you sought this…Holy Grail of yours?"
No sooner than Rin crossed the veil did the sight of a blur rushing them down come into view.
Shirou reacted first, draped within a royal mantle of power that seemed to spring out of his armored frame. He used his gauntleted hand to push her off to the side as his other came up with a projection of the Jeweled Sword. The resulting bloom of sparks and screech of steel scraping steel rattled the wind as his arms buckled while narrowly fending off the surprise attack.
The second swing came around nearly instantly.
Even though Shirou was easily far stronger than he'd been before he entered into Boletaria, it still knocked him several yards back.
Right as Saber's empty-gaze turned towards the nearest target—Rin.
The magus sent prana into her body as her foot touched down to reinforce everything and increase her mobility almost reflexively. At the same time, she siphoned more energy from the hilt of the Stormruler into her opposite hand to feed the miniature sun that came into existence. In a single motion, she jumped back as far as she could manage while sending the spell woven from the soul of the Armored Spider straight into the possessed Servant.
The resulting ignition detonated with a deafening flare of heat. The shockwave caught her and pushed her even further out as it passed through her body, such a fierce wave that it would have shaken her every molecule in her body if she hadn't reinforced it all with magical energy. Landing further away, only thick, dark smoke could be seen billowing up from the blast zone.
And yet, the smoke was banished to reveal that the Archdemon's vessel was barely singed as ethereal wings wavered behind her back in a manner that was akin to the mantle that draped Shirou.
It was a nightmare scenario.
Not only had it had compounded Saber's raw strength and durability into itself, but it also had her innate Magic Resistance to mitigate the damage. Even that attack, which Rin was certain could easily take one or more of Berserker's lives with that much power behind it, wouldn't be enough to do any meaningful damage to this thing.
Then, without even giving her time to lament that fact, the Archdemon moved with its ludicrous speed. A single flap of those wings molded by soul-energy sent it rushing towards Rin and the demonic blade was in range to cut her down. Her eyes only registered her death closing in as the second seemingly stretched on in perpetuity…
That was when she felt something jerk her off her feet from behind she managed to catch a glimpse of the one responsible—a blue-clad spearman wearing a ferocious grin as his crimson spear was already going for a killing thrust.
Lancer had saved her for some reason… albeit by putting her in just as much danger once she realized just how high up in an arch he'd thrown her.
That was when a reddish blur swooped in from below and she felt herself being held in a pair of powerful arms. "Archer!?"
"Nice to see you too, Rin," her former Servant said idly while they began to fall. "I can see that you've changed. Is it related to that thing in Saber's body and its ability to consume souls?"
His words rang to mind the earliest days of the war when they'd found the boundary field and met Lancer for the first time. Back then souls were an unconvertable energy source for a magus, so only Servants could make use of them as they were basically spirits who could subsist off of them. Archer, being unaware of everything that went on beyond the veil, could only work with that information to go off of.
Rin huffed as they landed and crossed her arms after being freed from his grasp. "Those Demon Souls just forced themselves into us uninvited, so we just made something useful out of them. Don't compare Emiya or me to that Archdemon inside of Saber."
"A Demon, huh?" Archer turned back to the battlefield where Lancer was still facing-off against the Archdemon. "Whatever the case, it'll be troublesome if it gets any more souls to fuel it from you or Illyasviel. Keep your distance."
"Illyasviel?" As he took off with a bow in his hand, Rin turned to see some distance away the white-haired girl who'd tried to kill them with Berserker was nestled behind some kind of defensive barrier woven of what looked to be massive flower petals. It was more than enough for her to string together the situation when she factored in their brief exchange.
Archer had survived after what happened with the Demon in Latria severed her connection with him because he made a contract with Illyasviel. Rin had entertained the thought that Sakura would have contracted him in the week they'd been recovering from the ordeal, but it seemed that hadn't been the case. Even though Rin hated to admit it, if that little girl could supply enough prana to keep that monstrous Berserker up and running, Archer would effectively be able to operate without any hinderance.
From a safe distance away, she watched the blue whirlwind that was Lancer and Emiya force Saber onto the defensive as Archer readied a bow and arrow from some distance away. If it was the three of them, they could probably hold out for a bit until one of them made a mistake. Then it would be the end.
Before that happened, she needed to find an opening. One where her contribution would be able to make the most impact. One that could change the tide of the battle.
It was all she could do for now.
As the air trembled from steel crashing against steel, Shirou felt wrong. Even though his flesh was supposedly his own, it felt wrong. Down to his very soul, something felt wrong.
"Grrhh…" A strained grunt slipped out between gritted teeth and plate steel as he felt the weight of the Archdemon's blows match his own as their swords clashed. Staring into the empty mirrors that were once Saber's eyes a scraping noise that could peel the nerves from bones and azure sparks rang out as the possessed Servant attempted to break through his guard.
There was never any room for half-measures. No room for complacency.
Yet he held firm, matching her raw strength as his muscles found strength beyond their limits as the power of Old King Doran thrummed between the folds of sinew and flesh. He began pushing back as the mantle wreathing him flailed about, only for the Archdemon to pull the blade away. It then darted back the length of football fields as two silver streaks passed by either side of Emiya's head.
The demonic blade swung twice and smashed into the arrow-forged blades, shattering the steel into pieces and escaping the radius of the small explosions. Then it pivoted on its foot and swung the blade as the blue whirlwind that was Lancer rushed in from behind with his crimson spear that hungered for blood. It went in for a thrust that would have gone through the skull if not for the stroke knocking spear's tip away but, with a whirl of the wrist, it turned into a flurry of stabs to continue the assault.
Emiya Shirou, you are chosen to bear the mantle of responsibility. It is your duty to stop it. To bear the burden of salvation.
And yet, he could only tighten his grasp on the hilt of his blade and push away his doubts and uncertainties. Right now what was needed wasn't himself. It was a hero who could stop the Archdemon before this fragile world between worlds that was already filling with the fog of the Old One came undone and it spread out—devouring the replete souls of his world as it had beyond the veil.
Stirred into motion by that driving urge, he kicked off the ground and returned to the fray. The sword in his grasp swung down in an arch to cleave in Saber's skull, only for the demonic blade to rise to meet it. Cold sparks blossomed and, to his surprise, its arm nearly buckled. Infused with the foreign strength of the Old King that rivaled the cumulative of the Demon Souls already empowering him, he could do it.
Driven by that thought, he swung with powerful motions that were hammering it back as the blows that were parried gradually worked through the Archdemon's guard. Then one swing that would have cleaved it from shoulder to hip found flesh and bone, only stopped as the demonic blade managed to stall it even as the ground cracked beneath it and the arm went limp.
Then he saw her features twitch, the stoicism falling for a moment to reveal… pain? Anger? Regret?
He only had enough time to dwell on it when Astraea let out a silent warning from his back as the Archdemon in Saber's body thrust its arm in his direction. There was ghostly light wreathing it, a pull accompanying it that sent a chill along his spine. He could feel that if that connected there would be no coming back.
That was when he felt something hard slam into him from the side. Suddenly the world of cracked earth and broken steel was scraping against his armor as he streaked across the ground. Something had knocked him out of the way and hard, leaving him rattled in his armor.
He raised his helmeted head to see that hand gripping Lancer's outstretched arm and digging in momentarily. An expression of pain was on the spearman's visage before a spinning, black blade whirled through and severed its hand at the wrist.
"Lancer, don't let it touch your core with that attack or it'll consume your soul!" Archer ordered before a rain of steel descended and walled off Lancer from the Archdemon he advanced with the married blades in hand.
Shirou didn't get back up even as the other two fought. Even knowing that he could end this before things grew worse. The reason was because that momentary flash of an expression reminded him of the fervent desire that he yearned for.
He wanted to save her. He wanted to save Saber from the Archdemon that had possessed her. But if he kept attacking as he had there would be no chance to save her.
Take my sword, pursue the final Archdemon and, with it, deliver the Old One to rest once again.
His heart stalled in his chest and the air frozen as he realized his folly. That power came at a price as the soul of the Old King that'd infused him hadn't been reduced to its mere essence and gilded like the Demon Souls within him. It had been infused directly into him and carried with it a compulsion.
This is my edict.
I won't kill her.
Shirou Emiya gritted his teeth as his refusal carried with it a searing heat that began threading his body. It sank down into his bones, turning them into red-hot iron rods that left him wanting to scream only for the agony of it to seize his voice in his throat, silencing him.
You will obey!
He held onto that resolve even as he burned on the inside from the pain growing worse. It wasn't the first time he'd been burned by flames that seared him down to his very soul. But for him to waver on his beliefs and slay her was something he just couldn't do.
If he had to burn to save her then he'd gladly do it.
Astraea pulsed in warning as the fog began to shift and churn around them, being drawn upwards and converging. He managed to crane his head up and, despite his vision blurring and swimming, he managed to make out the sight of the Archdemon amassing power within the wings that crowned Saber's shoulders even as it fended off both Lancer and Archer, who'd moved into close-range combat.
The power within the wings swelled until they reached the point where they were nearly blindingly bright and radiant with an ominous hue. Then it slithered along the length of the blade and gathered at the very tip, radiating like a newborn star coming into existence. Finally, the Archdemon rocketed into the air on wings of ethereal death and raised the blade upwards as the wind and fog howled with a roar that drowned out all sound…
Then it swung the blade down.
The howl of the fog gave way to the scream of countless souls as an all-consuming flare devoid of color swept away the world around them in an ever-growing eclipse…
"NO!" A shout came unbidden as Saber could only watch as the battlefield was engulfed in the blinding white light of soul magic. The destructive force washed over the ground beneath the clockwork sky, and she could only imagine with dread how her own hands had snuffed out the lives beneath its light.
"Is their loss truly so horrid to you, who've already slain so many and destroyed so much?"
Her dread turned to seething anger as hot as the flames of a dragon and she wheeled around on Allant. Throwing away restraint, she swung her arm as though to punch the specter only for it to phase through his ethereal form. In the end, it only served as a reminder of her status as a prisoner.
Amused, the ghost gestured towards the lapping sea enveloped by fog and mist. "If the pain truly is too much for you to bear then the balm you seek is before you. Walk into the embrace of the Old One, and your pain will be erased."
"And is that why you did the same?" she said with a sharp tone, striking with the only weapon she had left. "Because you couldn't bear your pain?"
The ghost didn't refute it.
"For every solution that I provided, another problem came about. It was in seeking one solution that could turn my kingdom into a utopia that I realized the truth, much as you did on that fateful day where your kingdom collapsed—the world will forever be filled with violence, misery, and desperation. The difference is that the grail you sought has only continued to bring you more pain and suffering, whereas the Old One has brought an end to the suffering of myself and my people."
"That's not true!" she argued. "My wish was to give my people a better leader. One that would lead them to a better future, so that their end would be a gentle one."
"But how could that be when the only one you have deemed as fitting to possess the qualities of a King would be no different than yourself? Were you not the perfect King to lead your kingdom for as long as it prevailed, even when the world itself seemed determined to see it end?"
For that her only answer was stark silence. Britain needed a perfect monarch to survive and she had become that monarch in order to make it so. She had protected them as best she could, judged them as best she could, and made sacrifices for them as best she could. What more could anyone else have done?
"The end result would be no different. It would simply not be at your hands, absolving you of your guilt. You did not seek a better leader, but an escape from your own suffering beneath the self-delusion that someone else could do better."
"That's… that's not…" Before she realized it, her voice had wavered. Was her wish truly just an attempt to escape her responsibility when she took up the sword willingly, knowing what it would cost? Did it matter if she made the wish with both the good of her people and herself in mind?
"As I said, we are not so different. It is simply that I have reached the point where I have no need to mask my action in lies, whether to others or myself."
Rin was honestly surprised that she survived as color came back into the world. Sure, she hadn't come out of it unscathed, despite being far enough away that she was only caught in the fringes of it. But the fact that she still had all her limbs intact was pretty good.
But what about him?
From the depths of her conscious mind, she recalled that Shirou had been nearly point-blank with the Servants, meaning he very well might not have been that lucky. With a heaving cough from laying down on the dry ground as dust lingered in the air, she managed to get her arms beneath her. Then she raised her head to take in the scope of the destruction.
Where there had once been a dry and desolate land was now a place consisting of ruins shaped from white stone and mist that seemed to creep in. There was the smell of the sea, a salty-sweet scent, and the sound of cresting waves nearby. Yet even though she could not see the source of the waves, she could see the fading wisps of an arcane ward woven from runestones that had been scattered about.
Within the fading protective shell that splintered and fractured laid the Servants of the Lance and Bow. They should have been wiped out entirely by that attack, but they had survived due to whatever mitigation had been thrown down. Though bloody and battered, they were quickly being stitched back together as magical energy from their Masters regenerated the damage they'd sustained.
As for Shirou… she couldn't him. Where is he?
She rose to her feet and craned her head to search for him, only to stop once she spotted the flittering of a lilac skirt and snow-white hair. It was Ilysaviel, the diminutive replacement Master of Archer, having abandoned the protections he provided her in the aftermath of the blast. She came to a stop some distance away, falling to her knees and reaching down to pull off something that was buried in the mist—a helmet made of dark silver steel.
Rin's legs moved as the sounds of battle resumed, breaking the silence that loomed with the onset of a new world. The Archdemon and Servants contested one another in a matter of strength while she clutched the broken hilt of the crystalline blade within her grasp, stumbling until she could get her balance once more. Her strength carried her over where the small girl was repeatedly shaking at the convulsing body lying face down in the mist.
"You have to get up!" she said, shaking the body until her hand brushed the blade on his back. Then she withdrew her hand, clutching at it while holding it to her chest.
Rin crouched down and noticed that Shirou was breathing, even as the mist clung to his body. She got her hands beneath him and then turned him over to his side, only to see his eyes were opened but unfocused. There was a blank and distant look from the glossy pupils even as his body jerked and pained sounds slipped out of his grit teeth.
"What's wrong with him?" Ilya asked.
She thrust her hand out to tell the girl to be silent as her mind sifted for clues to find a solution. She recalled he'd been matching the Archdemon only moments before something happened and Lancer pushed him out of the way. But considering how strong Shirou's body had become, even getting hit with the full might of a Servant's strength probably wouldn't slow him down. Not since he took in all the…
Demon Souls. Her mind latched onto that and, from that thread, she traced it to a memory where she'd seen this sort of thing before. It was the same as before when Saber had first had the soul of the Silver Demon they'd slain make its way into her.
The Maiden in Black had quelled that one. But as the others found their way into her, they began fighting amongst themselves for dominance. That allowed her own will to remain in charge of her body and uncontested until the last one took hold of her.
But why was this happening to Shirou? Were the Demon Souls he'd taken into himself suddenly attacking him now? Did something happen since Boletaria?
She didn't have the answers. But she knew who did. Looking towards the sole Archdemon that hadn't found its way into Saber hanging off his back, she reached down for the hilt of its vessel only to feel an electrified charge jump through her arm the moment her fingers brushed the shaft.
Rin drew in a sharp breath before forcing her fingers around the hilt and demanding, "What happened to him!?"
The charge was replaced with a pulsing sensation. It was akin to a heartbeat that reverberated throughout her body until it brushed her mind. And it carried on it a whisper that was so faint that it couldn't be treated as words, but as something like a fleeting sensation that she could feel—a plea.
A plea for help, born from a lack of strength.
Then there was nothing as the convulsing worsened. Her fingers were torn from the hilt of the blade as Shirou's body began to writhe. His back arched, bending almost to the point of breaking and his gloved hands clawed at the ground as faint noises escaped between the pained grunts.
"Hold him steady!" Rin ordered the girl just sitting there confused and clueless. She jumped in surprise before looking down and then trying to grab somewhere to stop him from hurting himself. Rin mounted him and used her body weight as she forced him still, using one hand to grasp his face and felt his skin was burning up like it was the casing of a furnace. "Shirou! Shirou talk to me!"
His eyes, for the briefest of moments, seemed to regain their luster. For that fleeting moment, recognition seemed to set in and he stopped struggling. But that moment lasted all of a second before his eyes screwed shut and he began straining again in pain, his head jerking left and right as if to deny something while muttering, "I won't… I… won't…"
"Tch!" Rin let out a sharp sound before shifting her gaze towards the hilt of Astraea's vessel. She didn't know what was wrong with Shirou. She didn't have enough information or how to help him, meaning she had no choice but to rely on one of the very things they were fighting to solve that problem.
Then she looked down at the remnants of Stormruler. With it she could potentially fire off a Soul Ray more than capable of punching through the inherent Magic Resistance Saber had. She could turn the tide with a single blast or even end the entire affair.
To sacrifice that would be gambling a trump card when there was so much at stake. And yet, as her eyes trailed down towards Shirou and spotted his visage contorting in pain, her fingers only tightened. She let out a shout of frustration as she grabbed hold of the hilt on his back with her other hand.
"What are you doing!?" asked Illyasviel, trying to hold Shirou steady with her small frame as she felt the sheer amount of magical energy being pulled from the broken blade into Rin's body and being dumped into the blade on Shirou's back.
"Being a fucking idiot!" Rin confessed, her body burning as the wellspring of prana within Stormruler was surging through her body and then transferred it into the demonic sword. She could only pray that the thing inside of it still wished for Shirou to live and was willing to go to the extent it had against the Dragon God to see that wish through.
"You'd better fix this, damn you!"
The battle was on the verge of being a lost cause.
The moment that light enveloped them, there had been a sensation like splintering glass cracking under a massive weight. And from that, pain bled through Lancer's defensive barrier and twisted within them. Their minds nearly tearing apart at the seams with their bodies to follow.
Had his current Master been any less replete with magical energy then it would have torn him apart. The fact that Lancer's wounds had mended as well only spoke highly of his Master, who he was now fairly certain of. But knowing that didn't change the fact that they wouldn't survive another attack like that.
He grimaced as his Reality Marble was steadily being taken away from him. It should have been impossible, but from the moment that thing had anchored it to the other planes it had started being overwritten. Now more of the fog had begun to bleed in.
No. Calling it fog at this point was meaningless when he could truly feel what this… Archdemon, as Rin had called it, had done. As it walked forward while clad in Saber's flesh, the souls of screaming dead began to coalesce around the grim wings that draped her back.
Then he breathed out a heavy breath and stood straight. "Lancer, can you buy thirty seconds and then pin it down? I'm going to try my final hand with a Broken Phantasm that can twist even dimensions. If there's anything that can get rid of it then that will be it."
Lancer huffed as he peered towards him for a moment with a side glance. He wasn't a fool and knew that since they'd both delivered what should have resulted in fatal blows more than twice over that ordinary means weren't possible. The only alternative at this point was to simply blow away the monster with enough sheer force that nothing remained.
Naturally, the one pinning it down wouldn't be able to escape the blast. Not if they were going to make it count. It was too strong and too fast for either of them to even think they could escape without the sacrifice.
"Just make sure you don't miss," he said, rolling his shoulders. The Grail War wasn't remotely a factor at this point. But rather it was putting down a soul-eating monster that threatened the world.
For one who'd earned his place on the Throne of Heroes by living up to the title, Ireland's child of light had no hesitation. "Master, use the Command Seals."
There was a moment between the request that was filled with the sound of the invisible waves washing back and forth. Then there was a howl, the wind and fog swirling as magical energy overflowed from Lancer's frame to the extent it was visible. The aura was palpable and undeniable, evident to anyone remotely sensitive to such a thing.
Naturally, the Archdemon shifted its stance. It recognized the threat that the Servant of the Lance presented from the sheer amount of power wafting off his menacing frame as he took on a stance. The ethereal wings flared out as if to match its density and it held its demonic blade at the ready…
And then a blue comet smashed into it faster than anyone could see and sent them both streaking far into the horizon of the foreign shores of this invasive realm between realms.
"Even with that thing in Saber's body and all of the energy at its disposal, it'll be hard-pressed to come out unscathed," Archer mused as he prepared the projection.
The surge of magical energy dedicated towards a singular cause that enhanced Servants to their utmost limits would only reinforce his natural attributes. If he was optimistic, he'd hope that Lancer could manage to eliminate it with all of that power at his disposal. But he wasn't so naïve. Even if Lancer had become stronger and faster to the point of becoming a comet that could shatter through any ordinary defense, that thing wasn't remotely weak.
Thus, he prepared an arrow that could twist space itself as Lancer continued to throw himself against the creature with as much magical energy as he could possibly bring forth as the seconds dragged on for seemingly an eternity.
Wreathed in the ghostly wings and demonic blade in hand, the Archdemon struck out. The fog clung to the sword as it swung around without grace but with an almost robotic preciseness. It met with the blue comet and then repelled against the attempt to smash it to pieces.
Undeterred, Lancer continued his assault. The power of the Command Seals was ephemeral and fleeting. The power of the crystallized wish limited to a miracle lasting only a scant few moments. Once that moment passed, he would have nothing left and the Archdemon would attack.
Raw magical energy poured through Archer's body and filled Caladbolg as he fixated on the task. There would be no second chance. The attack from before had torn away any notion of fighting defensively they had, and they couldn't allow for it to have enough time to attempt it a second time.
The Hound of Ulster knew that as well as he rushed forward with a roar, blood-red spear gleaming in the harsh light of the magical energy wreathing him while fog and mist swirled around. Breath ragged as he fought with unrelenting vigor, pushing the attack with speed that even the Archdemon couldn't match unless it remained on the defensive. But his time was running out and he knew it.
So Lancer committed. Leaping back as far as he could in a single moment, he drove as much of his magical energy as he could into his own Noble Phantasm in a way that was all too reminiscence to Archer. The ultimate sign of commitment that went beyond mere words or assurance as he witnessed with his reinforced eyes the cracks threading the spear that had been charged with all the magical energy it could handle and even more.
His own projected noble phantasm, a twisted blade compressed and shaped down to an arrow to be fired, crackled with streamers as it was nocked. The bowstring was pulled taut, muscles straining to the point that they felt like they would snap. Archer was readying the shot so that the moment it was done he could fire without even a second's hesitation.
The blue was dyed red. The light shed by the spear was unparalleled. Brimming with intent to kill so dense that it froze the magical energy in the air itself.
In the wake of the intense mana, the killing machine readied itself. Mechanically drawing forth as much energy as it could, the ethereal wings themselves seemed to turn into a ghostly blaze that fed off the colorless fog as it whirled madly around them and poured into the demonic blade. It was amassing enough energy to match the output that would come from Lancer's impending attack—
—but it was too late since Lancer had it beaten in terms of speed of release and the red death was unleashed first. His strongest attack that relied on converting magical energy into destructive force rocketed forward. The demonic blade was swung as pale light was released to snuff out the attack.
Then there was a cracking sound like shattering glass. The demonic spear shattered. Crimson eclipsed the horizon as the broken phantasm swept up everything around it until it seemed like the world was dyed the color of blood.
Pale light burst out, fighting against it. Attempting to push back the crimson death that closed in, the two hues clashed in the distance—twisting and writhing in a fight of dominance. The crimson fought viciously like a snapping hound lunging for the throat, but the pale flame was unrelenting and fierce as it ground away the might of the broken phantasm…
Until it finally won out.
With a single swing, a white streak cut through the air. The crimson curtain was parted and snuffed out. Lancer, likewise, found himself cut in twain. Having thrown himself forward with his arms outstretched to grapple the possessed Servant, he lost half of his body that was torn from the left shoulder down to the right hip.
Yet, there was a ghost smile on his face.
As the arrow was loosed exactly on cue, fired the moment after the Archdemon released its strongest attack and with the body of its foe impeding its view along the path. The opening he sought. He took it without hesitation so there was no escape as the very fabric of reality was twisted around them.
The rip gave birth to a vacuum, a twisting maelstrom that pulled in the fog, the ruins, and everything around them and tore them to shreds before violently rupturing as the vacuum filled itself. The twisting of space tore apart all defenses and afforded no shelter as the shockwave released a gale that sent fog and dust scattering,
Lancer had done his duty as a Heroic Spirit. As one who would sacrifice themselves to a greater cause, he hadn't hesitated to sacrifice his Noble Phantasm or his life. That was what it meant to be a hero.
Likewise, Archer had done his as a Counter Guardian. If there was anything left of Saber within that thing's grasp, he'd sacrificed her along with Lancer.
That was when he heard a blade piercing flesh. Then pain blossomed from his center.. His steel-toned eyes trailed down to see the handle of the demonic blade sticking out of his chest.
Then they looked back to the scene of destruction as the wind died and fog began to shift around the corpse on the ground. Jagged bits of meat that somehow avoided being torn apart and twisted with space itself. The upper right arm and head that somehow remained intact, even as the neck was twisted to the point where it was partly decapitated, held enough of a facsimile of life to throw the demonic blade as straight as an arrow.
He heard his name screamed as he fell to his knees while the strength left his body. It had gotten his magical core right after he'd expended almost all the magical energy he could. His body wouldn't last.
He had failed.
Within a world of white flame, Shirou felt himself burning as he stared down the soul of Old King Doran. The figure remained as it had the last time he had come across it. Imposing, Powerful. Eyes ablaze as it glared down at him.
"Your Servant has been consumed."
He saw her in that moment as the white flames brought forth a memory. He saw Saber before his eyes. He saw her figure turning back to him with eyes devoid of vigor or life as they had been when he walked through the fog and saw her.
Even so, he still believed otherwise as he recalled the moments they shared. The battles fought to reach this point. Never once retreating or turning back from the chance to return them to their world or chase her own wish, she strode forward endlessly.
That she was consumed entirely was something he couldn't accept. "She's still there. Fighting."
"The Archdemon suppresses her spirit and uses her flesh as a vessel for its power. "
"Then I'll free her spirit," he answered the shade with conviction. If her spirit was being held down, then all he had to do was shatter the shackles that kept them bound.
"You will fail and the colorless fog will spread to this world as well."
It was the same thing many others had tried to tell him before. That those that had tried to save everyone had failed. Saber had failed. Astraea had failed. He would fail as well and misery would follow for those they wanted to protect.
Even so, he wouldn't give up. He was determined to see it through. Even if it was a seemingly impossible task, he wouldn't ever give up his dream.
"I'll save everyone—including her."
It was then he felt the flames subside. The burning stopped. It was instead replaced with a cool embrace wrapping him from behind. And a whisper in the back of his mind.
"Let me help you."
His eyes finally opened.
His mouth moved.
No sooner than Rin had finished offering everything Stormruler had to offer to the demon in the blade did a blast rock the world. It ripped her attention away from Shirou's prone body when the force of the blast nearly tossed her about. She took a moment to huff before getting back to her feet and turning her attention towards the source.
And then she saw Archer's impaled body.
"ARCHER!" As Ilya screamed, her tiny body rushing to grab hold of his collapsing frame, Rin could feel as she pushed her prana into his shell to reform his body, but the damage had been done. It was all simply being wasted, spilling out into the colorless fog that seemed eager to lap it up.
There was nothing she could do for him, so Rin turned her gaze to the Archdemon. Half its body had disintegrated under the blast, green mist and wailing souls already stitching Saber's flesh back together. But not so quickly that it could move under its own power.
Rin saw her chance.
Her magic circuits flared to life to the point where they appeared over her skin. Bracing herself for the recoil, she took aim at the Archdemon some distance away while crackling streamers of soul energy danced around her. Pouring as much power as she could into a single blast, she let loose the Soul Ray from her outstretched hand.
It rushed forward as a lancing torrent of light. The concentration of pure power parted the colorless fog with a billowing gale along the path. Then it slammed into the innate magical resistance that Saber possessed like a tangible force.
The air howled. Had the beam been at a lower output then the entire thing would have dissolved outright. But, at maximum output she could feel the beam itself pushing past those defenses and eroding the reforming body before it could recover bit-by-bit.
Just a little more! Rin kept her finger on the metaphorical trigger as she kept up the Soul Ray with as much effort as she could muster. Her circuits were burning her from the inside out as the magical energy surged through them while she pulled from the colorless fog around them. Once more she was stepping into the realm of the demons themselves, but she didn't see any other chance but to use the souls of the dead within the fog if she was going to prevail.
…Yet, it wasn't enough as her vision turned to static once the pain began to overwrite her senses. Rin grimaced as her mind began to melt under the pain until she felt lightning threading her body, shocking her nerves, Her consciousness wavered as it became too much and her body couldn't keep up any longer.
The torrent of light ceased.
She collapsed to her knees, gasping for breath as her grip around the broken Stormruler grew tighter once she saw the corpse beginning to move. Even in the wake of the attack hammering away at its defenses, the Archdemon reformed its body. The primordial source of power that was the colorless fog rushed in, filling the space where it laid and undoing all the effort put forth.
Did I make a mistake after all? Rin couldn't help but wonder. Had she'd unleashed the full payload of Yuria's power using the hilt of Stormruler as she'd done against the Dragon God, then it would have been a singular attack that could have stripped away the defense and obliterated the body behind it. Instead, she'd gambled on Shirou and the demon in his sword rather than sacrificing him to get the job done.
And she'd lost.
"Damn it all…" She slammed her fist into the ground as she thought about all the sacrifices that were made until now. It was all for nothing…
"I am the bone of my sword."
Then seven little words reverberated over the sound of the unseen shore and the world beneath her shifted. It was as if the colorless fog itself was responding to the conviction of those words molding under the words, overwriting the cold ground beneath her with a field of bone-white grass.
"Steel is my body and Fire is my blood"
Rin recognized it as the battlefield that served as the battleground against the Dragon God. She recognized the words and what they symbolized. She turned back towards where she'd been before and saw the plate-clad body stepping forward. "Shirou…"
"I have created over a thousand blades."
The steel seemed heavy on his frame as he walked forward. In his gauntleted hand was the helmet that had been removed beforehand, slowly being brought up to his face that was covered in sweat. She could even spy the pale flames leaking from his skin as he neared.
"Have borne defeat. To bear victory."
As he walked past her, Ilya, and the fallen Archer, she could hear his heavy breath echoing within its hollow confines. She could feel the excess energy pouring off of Astraea in tangible waves, coursing through his body to the extent his magical circuits were practically glowing beneath the armor. They were pulsing at the rhythm of a steady heartbeat as he continued his forward march.
"To ease her pain."
Swords began dotting the landscape as the world continued to shape itself to his will. A great lake emerged just on the edge of her vision, right along the horizon. And, in the distance, she could see the white ruins cresting the hills in the distance.
And then… she saw them.
They rose from the grass like ghosts, descending from the sky and draping him like swirling and churning mist. So close to death and the realm of the Old One, so many souls couldn't help but be drawn here. It was just like before, in Boletaria.
"To achieve my goals."
Then she noticed one last thing.
Overlapping Shirou's body, she could see him. The Phantom. The Ghost.
Wreathed in white flames, half-faded and pantomime, was the armored spirit that had always aided them. That phantom that had first been there when they arrived and led them through their initial struggle to reach the first Archstone. Since then it had always followed and helped them—guided them.
Only now did she recognize its appearance was a perfect match of Shirou within his new armor.
No, not just the armor, she realized. They were the same down to their very movements. So perfect of a match that she couldn't even tell where one ended and the other began as they both traced the Jeweled Sword while ready to confront the Archdemon that now stood again.
Then they finished the chant that brought them down that path in perfect unison:
"Unlimited Blade Works!"
The words spilled out without thought. The oath of his personal reality. The call of his soul resounding and bringing his truth to the fore with the aid of Astraea and the Old King's power within him.
Saber was before him now. Her body had finished reconstituting and those eyes that had been rendered soulless and dead bore into him. It was then that he could see something lying within them for the first time that belonged to that which shackled her soul.
He wasn't sure how he knew. But he was somehow sure now that it recognized him. That somehow, somewhere, somewhen, they had fought one another before.
It remembered him as a foe that had to be defeated.
The demonic blade reappeared in its grasp out of the colorless fog. Then it moved with the same speed that had matched Lancer for a time, far quicker than his eyes could track. He never even saw the blade coming for his neck—
—yet, the blade was still rebuked before it found his flesh. His hands had moved on instinct, or something akin to a half-formed memory that was both his own and wasn't. He brought the blade up and used its length to guide its opposite past his head.
But the final Archdemon was no fool. The moment its blade was parried and his own came around, it disengaged with the speed of her body and circled around for a killing blow from a blind spot that offered no chance of a counterattack.
That was when they appeared.
A wall of shields with spears threading them emerged from the ground. The burning souls of the Phalanx followed, arising to protect his flank. Weaving a defensive formation, their shields were interposed to guard him while their spears were outstretched to skewer it.
It mattered little. With Saber's body, the Archdemon shattered the spears through sheer force before the demonic blade smashed through their guard, cutting through their shields and the bodies beneath them. Even the formation for which they were named after faltered before its might, but it bought enough time for Shirou to put distance between them.
Then metal-coated limbs from the bone-white grass.
Each one was elongated into a point that could have been mistaken for javelins. They sprung up to greet Saber's body as it closed in, the perfect ambush of a predator that would have skewered anything less durable. But even though it couldn't pierce the flesh, it still sent the Archdemon astray by redirecting the momentum as the rest of its body emerged.
It should have belonged to Rin. It should have had its ego and everything barring its raw power crushed. Yet, somehow, it was part of him.
The Armored Spider had emerged from the foundation of his soul as if it were his own. Skittering forward, the Demon let out an inhuman screech before spraying tar-black oil out towards Saber and set it aflame. The burning wave of napalm turned the white grass to black sand as it surged forward to form a molten wall.
It still meant nothing. The Archdemon snuffed out its flames with a sweep of the demonic blade and then lunged forward, cutting through the metal-coated limbs with a single stroke as they tried to intercept it. What followed was a full-bodied stab of the blade through its body and then flinging it towards Shirou before it could dissolve.
He leaped to the side to avoid the onrushing mass only for the Archdemon to close in, blade already thrusting for his body. A hastily raised guard offered no protection. The blade met with the Dark Silver armor for a mortal blow…
And Shirou suddenly found himself standing a safe distance away as the blade pierced the effigy that had taken his place as the sound of shattering porcelain rang out. The outline of the False Idol crumbled to dust, having been impaled by the demonic blade. The Doll that had once been loved and then turned into the foundation for a Demon had been sacrificed to save him.
Another demon he knew that belonged to Rin yet had once been his.
Before the Archdemon could move, a biting and buzzing horde of insects—locusts, flies, mites, began to swarm over it. The cloud of festering pest born from a demonic soul was banished with a flap of the ethereal wings, but it had served its purpose. For at that moment where its vision was obstructed, a massive blade wreathed in white flames came crashing down.
The Adjudicator, came to his mind with thoughts that were his yet weren't. Its weapon was less of a sword and more of a cleaver that was made to butcher, with the owner being an overly large blob of flesh that mimicked a man with a golden bird atop it. Yet, so massive was its weight and force that once the Archdemon raised its blade to block the earth itself cratered under the force of it.
From its shadow Shirou watched as its mass continued to press down onto the Archdemon right as the ground beneath her came alive, warping into a writhing pit of massive worms.
Countless, fat leeches emerged from the ground and began to swarm Saber's body until it vanished beneath the horde of the blood-sucking creatures.
Yet, they were all rebuked. The demonic blade howled as it was wreathed in pale light seared the air around them. The leeches were evaporated by the hellish winds and the massive blade shattered before Saber's body shot upwards and then came down with a cleave that cut through the Adjudicator's massive frame.
The empty gaze of the Archdemon then fell back onto him. It advanced, rushing forward to cut him down with the blade chambered. To cut down its nemesis, as it had once before.
Shirou felt his own soul answer in response this time.
A towering wall of ethereal steel came crashing down before the chambered blade to reap his neck, shattering the earth beneath him. The scraping of steel shaving steel was ear-rending, but the bulwark held. The Tower Knight stood tall, shield braced with both hands before it used its might to sweep out with it.
Saber's body was driven back from the sheer mass and force, the blade and greaves digging a trench from where they touched down in the distance until they came to a stop. Immediately afterwards, shadows descend from above while accompanied by screeches that shook the air. The Twin Gargoyles of Latria, the inhumanly strong, winged beasts, each grabbed hold of one of her limbs, holding Saber's body in place.
Then the ground beneath it turned molten. An eruption followed as from the depths below emerged the Flamelurker, its red-hot spirit burning with volcanic flames. Though its flesh-melting heat was rebuked by the Magical Resistance of Saber's body, it also grappled the possessed Servant from behind, holding it steady as the Tower Knight stepped forward with its elongated lance wreathed in soul energy.
It was still all meaningless in the end.
The Archdemon slammed Saber's head backwards into the chest of the Flamelurker hard enough to cave it in, forcing it to release her slender frame. It then lashed out with her leg, slamming her right greave into the head of the Gargoyle holding her sword-arm with gruesome brutality that shattered its corporeal form. Weapon free, demonic steel whirled around in a single motion and cut both its kin and the Searing Demon apart.
The Tower Knight drove its lance forward regardless, intending to run the Servant through. But with an upwards swing, the lance was shattered before the Archdemon took advantage of Saber's speed to slip past the Tower Knight's guard to cut through both its ankles in an instant. The stalwart guardian was toppled, its titanic form brought low, but it still lashed out with its hand to grab hold of the Archdemon.
A streak cut through the air as the arm was severed, left to fall onto the ground with a massive crash before blue and silver rushed in. Without hesitation or mercy, the Archdemon drove the point of its sword through the Tower Knight's helmet. The titan's body went still and then hit the ground, left to break apart into silvery wisps as the bonds holding it together came undone.
Then it was just the two of them again.
The lesser Demon Souls aren't going to be enough. The thought resonated within him like an echo as knowledge of what they fought being the amalgam of every Archdemon that had found its way into Saber's body came into him with a sense of déjà vu. He felt himself take on a stance as though from muscle memory pulled from the history of the sword in his grasp.
No. It was more than that. It came up from the soul within a soul that was greater than any other he owned. Yet it was so similar to that which dwelled within his projected blade that it bled into him.
He pulled on it. He sympathized with the cumulative experience with the projection and from it felt the connection to the source that was the Silver Demon's soul. He pulled on it and felt sheer experience beginning to flood through his magic circuits and carry along with it memories…
Rin bit her lip as she watched the last of the Demons fall.
Not just his, but even those that didn't belong to him. She'd recognized more than a few of them as being those that she had taken into her own soul and crushed into spells with Freke's aid.
She could think of a few reasons for that, but right now none of it mattered since they were all destroyed. They could be reconstituted but that would take time. More time than the Archdemon was willing to allow as it moved to cut him down. "Shirou—!"
Yet, no sooner than she called out to him did he parry the blade with his own. With a clash of steel against steel the demonic blade slid across his projection, leaving the momentum undisturbed. The Archdemon sailed past him and left a divot in the ground as it righted itself and turned to face him.
He approached it this time, with steps that were more assured and stable. The jeweled sword moved with a fluid grace unlike before, making his efforts before seem clumsy in comparison to how practiced it was now. It was almost as if he was moving on instinct as he began fending off the Archdemon.
"Ah… so that's how it is…."
Those words pulled Rin's attention to Archer's bloodied lips as he had laid eyes on that Jeweled Sword. The lower half of his body was already eroding away, everything past his knees bleeding out into the colorless fog. Even with Illyasviel hovering over his body, every magic circuit in her body flaring as she tried to pour prana into his vessel to heal him, it was only prolonging the inevitable.
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"There's a magic that allows you to draw skills from the past by possessing yourself with another incarnation. I don't know how, but that phantom that's overlapping his own must be doing something akin to that. There might be a variance in the history but they're similar enough that they might as well be a perfect match."
That was why the phantom looked just like Shirou in its armor from the moment they arrived in that other place. That was why it acted the way it did and always seem to know where to lead them.
It was a phantom that had already walked the same path it had taken before and was acting as a guiding hand for them.
She turned back and watched as the two broke their brief engagement, Shirou disengaging right as a spear of crystalline bone slammed down onto the battlefield and broke against Saber's frame as it staggered her body. Gazing upwards showed the archdemon that Rin had cut down with the Stormruler, sailing above in the air casting a shadow across the whole of the battlefield.
The Archdemon in Saber's body recovered swiftly enough. It leapt back to avoid the following spears from the aerial menace. Then the ethereal wings that it bore took it into the sky, clearly with the intention of slaying it before it could interfere further.
Shirou pulled out the ghostly catalyst that was wrapped in golden cloth, a tool forged from the soul of the Yellow Demon. And the moment he used it, a crimson surge of magical energy exploded out from Shirou's body, accompanied by a monstrous roar that was all-too familiar rippling across the Reality Marble. The cowl of souls that draped his back grew denser to the point of being tangible and then became a pair of draconic wings.
Wrapped in power beyond limits, he shot into the air after her matching her speed and Rin could swear there was a flicker of emotion across Saber's face as Shirou's body rammed into her own, clashing now in the sky.
"Rin." The magus was pulled out of her stunned silence and had her attention drawn back down to her former Servant that laid dying with the crying Einzbern next to him. "If you've managed to make use of the souls of these demons then it only goes that you can do the same to a Servant in as weak a condition as mine. I want you to draw out my spiritual core and consume it."
She was left speechless at the request.
He continued. "With Lancer gone, the last Servants are myself and Saber. However, the moment my physical form breaks down completely, the grail will be completed. And if that happens, Ilya will cease being able to function as a person. Her mind and body will become the vessel of the Holy Grail."
"…And if that happened, it would be within the Archdemon's grasp as well," Rin guessed, which was the absolute last thing they needed. She cursed herself for not realizing it sooner.
"You can't leave me!" Illyasviel cried. "You can't leave me too! You promised!"
Rin looked down at the small girl crying, demanding Archer stay even as his body wisped away like sand in the wind. Begging him not to vanish as she exhausted herself, continuously pushing prana into his fleeting form.
Once that was gone then the grail would be exposed to the colorless fog and that would at the very least serve to further fuel the Archdemon. Shirou was hanging on somehow, but she doubted he could keep it up forever. Archer couldn't be allowed to be taken into her.
Ilya sniffled and cried, fat tears streaking down her face as she clutched at Archer's red coat, shaking her head.
"I can move your core into a different vessel," she told him while looking down at Stormruler's hilt. The shattered blade would serve one last time. "But I'll tell you right now it'll probably be a one-way trip."
"That's fine," he told her, giving her a wry grin. "I've had worse deals."
"No!" Ilya begged a final time, her lips trembling as the tears continued to spill from the corner of her eyes. "There's no meaning to me being alive if you leave me too. Please."
Archer smiled, something so gentle and kind it seemed alien on his face before he brought a trembling hand up to brush across her silver hair, marring it with the blood on his hands.
"I made you another promise too. That nothing would hurt you… not even me."
Rin pretended she didn't hear them as she committed to what needed to be done.
The Servant of the Bow would be sealed away.
A draconic scream birthed from a human throat rang out as the phantom and host swung the projected sword with all their might as they were once more reborn in flames.
Molten lava coursed through their veins. Heat seeped out of their pores and flooded the air around them to the point of shimmering. Every muscle in their bodies were burning with power—enough to tip the scales in their favor.
Saber's arms buckled as their blade came crashing down. Even though the Archdemon's guard was unbroken, her body was still sent sailing through the sky from the sheer force of the swing. Those ethereal wings flared outwards to stabilize it before they closed the distance in an instant and the second swing came down.
The soul-forged demonic blade within its grasp shook from the might of the blow. But it had learned, having angled the blade to allow it to slide off to the side. Instead of being sent sailing, her body twisted midair and her armored greaves came around to take off his head.
One arm came up, dark silver armor braced to protect their head from the blow. They felt the armor threaten to break under the weight of the kick. But it held as they used their newfound strength to bat away her leg as the draconic wings flapped once and sent them skyward to avoid the swing of the sword that followed.
In the air above, they caught their breath as they felt the searing beneath their flesh anew. The draconic might flowing through them would hold out for only a minute at the most. After that, the price they paid for this power would be collected.
But if that was the only price to be paid then that was fine. They knew they would never get another chance when this was done. They had no choice but to keep attacking until they could breakthrough and save her.
Likewise, the Archdemon attacked with a fury of its own as their blades clashed in the air once more. One swing was followed by another and then twice as many. No longer restraining its own power or testing its limits, the expressionless mask that was Saber's visage slowly warped to one of frustration and fury as it tried desperately to overwhelm them.
Push further, the phantom's thoughts brushed Shirou's mind over the clashing of ghastly steel as they launched what would be fatal attacks under normal circumstances. Nothing less would be enough. Not if they were going to loosen the shackles holding her down. Hold nothing back!
He did so, the fire burning them from the inside out raging even hotter as the flames warp his flesh beneath the armor further. It felt like scales were forming in place of his skin, replacing them with the might of the Dragon God. They would turn them into charred threads that were barely holding on when all was said and done, but for now they served as they ignited into a second sun with the draconic flames.
The Archdemon chambered its blade. Sensing the incoming attack, it readied its own to match. The colorless fog around it churned, roaring to life as the souls within it screamed as they became charged with crackling bolts of lightning. The essence of the soul was primed into a raw destructive force and then launched towards the flaming comet streaking forward.
Pain washed over them. The might of the attack, its electrifying sting threading their body and forcing out a scream as the Dark Silver armor began to crack and break beneath the onrushing storm of souls. But even more damning were the countless voices within.
The myriad of voices all shouting at the inevitability of defeat that awaited them, how only failure and despair would be their reward. All of it felt like claws scraping at their very souls. It was suffocating as they tried to snuff out the flames and erode them away. To break them in spirit before the sheer power of its attack shattered their soul and swept them up once and for all.
Yet, amidst the storm of souls and flames that swallowed them whole, they held fast. They had known it already. They had known the consequences of this path. They knew the pain and suffering that awaited. Yet they'd chosen to walk it from start to finish.
There were no regrets for those desperate souls to cling to as the flames of their conviction burned through the attack and they pushed past it with their armor battered and charred, pieces broken off to expose the charred flesh below and helm shattered to expose the determined eyes as the soul-bound pair rocketed forth and swung down the Jeweled Sword with a shout.
Saber's armor split open as the demonic blade shattered from the might of his final blow like glasswork. Her body was driven into the ground with a resounding crash that shook the foundation of the world, the impact driving away the colorless fog from the center of a crater where broken and battered flesh laid sprawled on the ground. It was an undoubtedly fatal blow that would have killed any living thing a dozen times over.
It bought them only a few seconds to act as they rushed down, falling after her as the draconic wings evaporated. With no more fuel left to burn the flames were nothing more than smoldering embers at this point, a faint flicker that allowed the phantom and host to fall and carry out a final act.
There was nothing left within them to be able to so much as project another sword, but that was expected.
Instead, they drew the one blade Shirou swore he never would draw.
Astraea was entwined with the Archdemon of avarice. The demon that had consumed and consumed and consumed until a whole civilization had rotted away beneath its ever-constant feeding. There was no soul that should be beyond her to pull from its vessel—not even the others that were housed inside of Saber.
His other self had abandoned Astraea. But for all the power he had gained, he had saved no one—not even himself. She was the key to saving Saber and so they could only place their faith in her.
"Please…" The soul-bound pair begged the soul of the Saint while staring into Saber's soulless eyes as he held the blade above their head. "Help save her, Astraea!"
Astraea pulsed in understanding, a reassurance to the back of their mind.
They fell and the blade plunged down
"You've fought your fight, who would ask more sacrifice from you?"
The insidious voice rang out inside of Saber's mind as she found herself devoid of strength. It was as if it all had been sucked away the moment that she began to ponder the words of the specter of royalty. Now, to her quiet horror, she couldn't distinguish the voice of the horrid king from her own anymore.
"This world is cruel."
Her eyes grew heavier as the ripple of the waves grew louder. Even though she hadn't moved, the tides of the ocean had risen to where everything beneath her hips had been shrouded beneath the waters. It sapped away her strength and even her very will to care.
"All worlds are cruel."
A folly. A mistake. The moment she wavered in her conviction for even a second the words took to root.
"Would it ever get better?"
Her thoughts were fading. She knew that she had to try and fight this. She knew she had to try and resist.
"Would your sacrifice make their lives better?"
But… she was so tired. She couldn't remember the last time she'd let down her blade. Let down her guard.
"Has it all just been… a waste?"
The will to resist grew into a dulling whisper as she looked into the water and spied the reflection. It wasn't hers. but Mordred's instead. Her visage was twisted with hatred and sorrow, tears running down her cheeks.
"You have failed, all those you ever loved."
The insidious whisper was followed by the water rising up even more, until…
Then a shout cut through the confusion. It was fleeting. But to her mind that had slowly been growing clouded since the cutting words tugged at her soul, it was a beacon that drew her eyes to the distant shore.
There she spotted a familiar golden light. It was cradled within the grasp of a woman approaching her, dressed in saintly garbs that looked dirtied and defiled. The woman waded through the water until she stood opposite Saber.
"Weren't you the one who told him you wouldn't forgive him if he left you alone?" the woman said softly. "Back then, when you could do nothing but hope?"
She remembered that moment, as she could only watch as Shirou and Rin were on death's door after the visit to the Valley of Defilement. Even after dragging them back there was nothing she could do but rely on the Maiden in Black and hope that they would pull through. She hated feeling that way.
"The day he should have perished in the flames and that time when the demon entwined with my own soul tried to steal him away, what saved him was this," she said, gesturing to what she held close to her chest. Saber recognized it. Her scabbard that had been lost before that faithful battle. "Even now, it shines radiantly with his desire to save you no matter what."
Saber focused her eyes on that golden light as she felt warmth returning to her. The soul-crushing despair that was rooted deep within her writhed and withered before it, leaving her mind to recall the face of Shirou and Rin. Those she hadn't failed. Those who she could still save.
"Even now he's reaching out to save you," she said before looking enviously towards the golden scabbard. Then she held it out, presenting it to its rightful owner. "For his sake, do not make the same mistake I did."
Saber reached out to touch it.
The moment she did the light eclipsed the world.
The water vanished. The ruins disappear. There was only the floor of starlight within her soul as she stood staring at the souls around her.
The Dragon God, straining and hissing as it pulled and writhed in the grip of the chains. The broken, battered Silver Demon, the tattered shroud, even the distant, frightened Stormruler, inching closer. Sensing opportunity as the Archdemon struggled and focused its full might on containing a pulsing Golden Soul straining mightily to break out of its hold.
It didn't even notice her
"YOU FOOLS!" King Alant's voice bounced across the fabric of her spirit. Disembodied, a howl on the wind.
His calm and assured demeanor was replaced by fury and panic. "NO ONE WANTS TO GO ON JUST TO SUFFER! YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT MORE THAN ANYONE!"
Astraea paid his rantings no mind. Her gaze fell onto the Servant's and then she gave her a small nod before closing her eyes and awaiting what would come next.
To fulfill his wish.
As her strength returned, Excalibur found its way into Saber's grasp once more. She found comfort in the immaculate blade that lacked any impurity and took on a stance as the radiance within it embodied everything that King Allant had thrown away. She would use it to end his madness once and for all. "EXCALIBUR!"
The reveal of the true name. The shining sword was unleashed. The pure brilliance engulfed the world.
The Archdemon looked up, as though surprised to see her there, so focused it'd been on subjugating the Gold soul in his grasp.
And in her last moments Saber spotted the Saint smiling softly as the embrace of the light washed her away.
Shirou had nothing left within him the moment the blade pierced Saber's body. He could only stare down at her emerald eyes as the brief, fleeting light of life entered them once more. Then her body buckled beneath his as the green mist surged out from her body in the wake of golden light that radiated from the inside-out.
That shining light that embodied hope surged out in a torrent. Its brilliance reached the very heavens of his inner world as it slowly collapsed in on itself. Its dazzling radiance drove back the colorless fog with an unrelenting wind that swept him off his feet.
Shrieking, it rushed towards the gateway where the anchor between worlds had been wedged before. The stake had been eroded away by Saber's light and now all traces of the Old One's reach were being banished from the world itself. The fabric between their realities would soon be sealed once more.
Shirou felt himself being pulled along with it by his grip on Astraea's blade, clutching the remnants with what remained of his strength. The thought of releasing it never once crossed his mind. Not even as it dragged him through the portal and he continued to fall as his consciousness faded.
…He wasn't sure when he landed, but Shirou woke up to find that he was laying on a beach that had a salt-sweet smell to it. His body was packed into the sand that must've cushioned his fall, but all it had done was stop him from dying instantly where it was that he landed.
The price for the power he received had been paid.
His body had become too weak to move on its own. Even trying to rise up from the shore proved to be too much for his muscles that had been burned away to even handle, leaving him unable to do anything but stare into a sunless sky overcast with gray mist and colorless fog.
Yet, he found it in himself to smile. Because the moment he saw Saber's eyes regain their life, he knew Astraea had succeeded. Even if the cost was that he was too weak to move on his own now, that was enough. He had saved her and driven the colorless fog back to this place.
That was good enough.
He laid there, content in that knowledge for a time. He wasn't sure how long he had been there. He didn't feel hunger or cold or even pain anymore. He wasn't even sure if he was still truly alive until soft steps amidst the sand reached his ears.
Then a pair of wax-covered eyes looked down upon him instead.
"Tis done," spoke the Maiden in Black softly, her tone carrying with it a softness that was no longer concealed beneath its normally stoic mask. "Thine great labor has borne fruit. Now the Old One comes."
Her slender hands reached down as she took hold of him gently and helped pull him onto his feet. Vertigo nearly overtook him as he was once more upright, and his legs nearly gave out from being unable to support his own weight. But she managed to drape his shoulder around her and became his legs as she walked him towards the maw of…
Well, he wasn't really sure how to describe it fully. It looked like a worm or great beast molded from driftwood, so massive that cities dotted its back like scales with giant swords and other weapons casting shadows as tall as towers. Probably from those that had tried to slay it in times long since passed.
As it came to a stop at the shoreline, the candle-maiden carried him forward. "Come now. Tis only a little further."
It was slow-going. Practically inch-by-inch. But time seemed to move just as slowly while they wandered into a realm that was probably older than any civilization itself as she brushed twigs and dry wood from the path until they finally reached the end.
There, where a glimmer of pale light stood nestled within a cradle of roots and branches.
And just before it Shirou spotted the remnants of what was once King Allant. The knowledge was secondhand. A fleeting tidbit from the phantom that was no more and from his eyes laying their gaze on the sword that was within the grasp of the sludge of bugling meat that could no longer be called human.
It laid there, unmoving. It was still alive, in body at least. But there was no longer a mind or soul within it.
He had shunted his own soul into Saber in order to break her spirit so that her body would be the ultimate vessel. In those final moments, after deluding himself that he'd achieved something besides senseless destruction, the golden light of hope had extinguished what was left of the former king along with the demons he had reintroduced into the world. Now that was all that was left of the man who was once a king driven by ambition and melancholy.
The Maiden in Black carried Shirou past the mass of flesh. She nestled him next to the wall where the primordial being rested, gently setting him against the wall. "Rest now, Slayer of Demons. Thine labor is finally over. Now begins mine own."
The soothing words lulled him to towards slumber.
The passage of time would only affect those who were not shackled to the Nexus.
The Maiden in Black did not know how long it had been since the Old One had been lulled back to sleep. Her labor had been carried out and those lost souls who had found shelter within the walls of the Nexus had once more ventured out into the world beyond that was now devoid of the Old One's touch and thirst for souls. But even with no mortals left to be guided by the fleeting candles, her duty remained to tend to the Nexus and keep watch over its seal so that no one carelessly roused the slumbering child from it sleep once more.
Amidst her wandering, she came to a stop in front of a candle that had burned out once more, where the sole other resident dwelling in the Nexus sat down with his back leaning against the wall, the blade and armor being meticulously cared for once again as was his custom.
Though there was little need for the light or warmth of it, she still replaced it with a candle whose flame danced upon its wick.
"Thank you," spoke the figure. Smiling softly
Once, before, when some part of her that understood humans realized how quiet and lonely it must have become for him, the Maiden deigned to ask a question of the once mortal who had come from beyond the veil. "…Slayer of Demons… does though regret thine newfound duty as a Monumental?"
He had fought to return them to their home. Yet, as the bearer of the Demon Souls that remained, he had become the one anchor holding the fabric of reality and the Nexus in place. His reward for his labor was to be shackled to the Nexus no different than she was.
Yet, Shirou Emiya only smiled softly when he thought about his answer. Because it was the path he had chosen. And worth the price it entailed. Then he answered in a calm, assured tone:
It's. Finally. Fucking. Done.
There will be an Epilogue but it will be much shorter than this monstrosity of a chapter. It's finally done. After so long T_T
I'm so happy.
My thanks go out to Born of prayers for the months and months of work editing this beast. Without him its unlikely this story would have been finished.