Disclaimer: The works of Type-Moon and Jō Taketsuki are their own despite my most fervent wishes. This is a fan work and if anyone does pay me for it the only thing it will accomplish is to get me into trouble. This is being done purely for fun, constructive criticism is welcome, and flames will be ignored. Please be gentle though, this is the first fanfic I've put on the net.
By the Black Rites of Deepest Necromancy, I return this Tale to the World of the Living! Go Forth and Seek BRAINS!
Right, sorry that this chapter took so long to get done. Honestly, I don't really have any proper reasons. Most of my recent free time has been spent working on my novel, which just recently passed 260,000 words, meaning that it's just over two thirds done. Aside from that I confess to a general lack of enthusiasm for rewriting this chapter. Don't get me wrong, I fully admit that my Beta was in the right when he told me to do so, but even if you know it's got to be done it's hard to get the enthusiasm to rewrite something you already spent hours on.
In all honesty this arc of the story is proving a bit difficult to write, mainly because I set things up so this would be the climax of the first part. Yeah, that's right, more than a million words in and we're only getting towards the end of the first part. I think I might have a problem with letting things run on too long. Oh well, that just means you guys have some more stuff to read, right?
Anyway, this part of the story has been planned out for a bit, but I'm having some trouble writing it because I want to strike a good balance between length and drama. Back when I wrote out Apollo's part in the story I messed things up with him by making him ham too much, and by not giving him enough screen time. Yes, he served the purpose I introduced him for, namely to give Godou a good fight, to keep him away from Shirou while Venus took him, and to give Godou a new Authority, but the execution was a bit off. I'd been building him up for chapters, and then he went down in a single fight. Granted, it was fight I was quite pleased with, despite some of the flaws, but in hindsight I think I could have used him a bit better.
That's what I'm trying to aim for with Ahriman and Odysseus, fights that are in keeping with the characters as I designed them, and are suitably dramatic and fun to read. This has become a bit more of a challenge than I expected, but rest assured that I'm not giving up!
Anyway, enough of my complaining and excuses, lets get to something a bit more interesting.
It seems that a lot of my readers are looking forward to the Sixth Holy Grail War, so I thought I'd clarify a few things here just so everyone's clear. The War was always a part of my plans, though I do admit that the details have changed over the years. Now, I'm not going to spoil things, but I am going to share some details so that when I finally get to that point people won't be baying for my blood.
Some of the Servants I've designed, and this was about four or five years ago, now have canon versions in Fate/Grand Order. However, I've decided to stick to my original versions rather than use the new ones. I hope this doesn't ruffle too many feathers, but I do prefer it this way, and I hope that people will enjoy the story I make.
On a related note, I just want to post a thought that's been bugging me for a while, namely my irritation at the Fate series' descent into the oversexualization of its characters. I mean, in Fate/Stay Night the female characters were all depicted pretty well, at least in my opinion. Saber was in anime armour, but they didn't give her a boob plate or anything like that. Caster looked like a powerful witch, attractive but not overly revealing. Rider was sexy, but that was in keeping with her character design and even then it was well done. The sole thing that broke my disbelief was that Rin was running around in a miniskirt for all the fighting, and that was just a minor thing.
Fate Zero came along, and they kept it up, no oversexualized characters. Then there was Fate/Extra, which took things a bit further, with Nero, Tamamo and Drake all showing things off a bit, but not taking it too far. In all cases it was a bit much, but I could live with it since the rest was done damned well.
Then we got Fate Apocrypha and Fate/Grand Order.
Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed Apocrypha, even if it did end up twisting the timeline all over the place in order to get things set up, but one thing I really didn't like was the clothing of Mordred and, to a lesser extent, Jeanne. I didn't have any problem with their characterizations, those were awesome, but why on earth did they have Mordred, a Servant that threatened to kill her Master if he called her a girl, short shorts and a tube top?! And don't get me started on her unarmoured battle clothing! I mean, she literally only had one strip of cloth over her boobs, why would she only have that if she saw herself as practically male? As for Jeanne, she wasn't as bad, but was armour that excluded her breasts really necessary? But Assassin of Black? She was essentially going into battle in fetish gear, and unlike Medusa's blindfold there was never an adequate explanation as to why!
As for Grand Order . . .
Well, I haven't played it myself, since it isn't available here in Britain, but I have seen some playthroughs. As a game it's good, but I think the developers took too much of a running jump into the skimpy costumes side of things, especially when they have female samurai wearing what is essentially a chainmail bikini into battle. And the design of Boudica . . . why?! WHY?!
Right, that's my little rant! Sorry about that, I just had to get that off my chest. I hope that it was at least slightly interesting. Now, onto this chapter.
This chapter does see Godou having a chance to shine, but I want to make something very clear, just because he can take on Ahriman that doesn't mean that he's stronger than Shirou. In my mind these three share a sort of Rock-Paper-Scissors relationship in that each of them is weak against one and strong against another. Simply put, Shirou beats Godou, Ahriman beats Shirou, Godou beats Ahriman, at least in theory anyway.
The fight Shirou was in was against a foe that was almost ideally suited to beating him while equipped with a hostage/shield that he couldn't move against, probably the worst match up he could have faced. By contrast Godou not only has the ideal tools to bring down his enemy without hurting the hostage, which was pretty much the only reason Shirou chooses to trust him, he also has a weapon that Ahriman cannot usurp in the form of Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi. Unlike Shirou's Traced Noble Phantasms, which though powerful are not truly alive, Godou's subordinate sword is essentially a god in its own right, and as such exists beyond the point that Corruption of the World can affect within the time available in battle. Were they able to capture Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi and use their Authority upon it for a prolonged period of hours then there is a chance it could be usurped, or it might simply be destroyed before it succumbs.
I was quite pleased with how Illya's portion of this story turned out. I was always a bit disappointed in how her fate turned out in the Unlimited Blade Works anime, in my opinion the best Fate anime to come out so far. I'm much more of a fan of her role in the Heaven's Feel route, and I hope that I did her justice in how she dealt with Ahriman's attempts to mentally overwhelm her.
As for Shirou's predicament, that was always planned. In many of the fights that Shirou has been forced into his ability to Trace Noble Phantasms has always been his main edge, his ability that matches even the Authorities of the gods. I like to think I've kept things interesting in the past fights, but for this one I wanted to hamstring him for his fight. Odysseus was always about evening the odds with his enemy through cunning and underhanded means, something that persisted even in his maddened state. He was never going to try to beef himself up to Shirou's level, despite what his earlier rants might have suggested, it was always about dragging his enemy down to where he could be dealt with.
However, Odysseus was more successful than he actually planned, which has led to him being overcautious at the point where he could have ended the battle in his favour had he been more aggressive. As things stand Shirou only has one weapon, but the majority of his Authorities remain at his disposal, and he still has a chance to win, though it looks like things will be an uphill struggle.
Now, once again I'd like to offer thanks to my Beta for his considerable help, and his patience in bearing with me in getting this chapter ready. Now, onto the story!
Chapter Forty: Blackened Gold
Godou wanted to watch Shirou as he left, but he wasn't so foolish as to take his eyes off the small tattered figure before him. The figure into whose path he had deliberately stepped.
Though he was unlikely to ever admit it to anyone the sight before him was one that would have fitted well into some of the nightmares that his imagination had managed to cook up for him over the last few months. Bizarre as it was to admit Godou had always found Illya-chan to be more unnerving than her brother. Shirou could be intimidating, especially after the whole mess with Venus and everyone finding out just how much firepower the red haired Campione could bring to bear, but he was something that the Kusanagi heir knew how to handle. At least Shirou lacked the barely restrained savagery of Voban, or the brainless enthusiasm of Donii. Yes, the King of Steel might be powerful, but at least Godou had a good idea of where he stood in regards to him
Illya-chan, on the other hand . . .
Maybe it as the fact that he'd always found her to be somewhat on the creepy side. Sure, she was small and cute and adorably enthusiastic about some things. She'd ended up becoming friend with Shizuka so he'd seen her hanging out with her on several occasions, and she'd always seemed like a nice girl. The thing was that every time he looked at her his instincts always yelled at him that she was dangerous. Not like Shirou, she wasn't anywhere near as powerful as the eighth Campione, but there was something else about her that set his nerves on edge. Her eyes were just a bit too bright, denoting the fierce intelligence behind them. The way she looked at those about her, it always made him think she was assessing them, determining just how much of a threat they were. And then there was her willingness to use violence . . .
Shirou was strong, but he tended not to resort to that strength against anything other than the foes he had to. The only time that had been otherwise was when Illya-chan had been kidnapped, then he had been more than ready to unleash every weapon in his arsenal against those that had taken his sister. That had been intimidating, but it had been something that he understood. Seeing pictures of what Illya-chan had done to the leader of the group that had kidnapped her . . . that wasn't something he could easily get his head around.
It was perhaps that dichotomy that made the sister of his fellow King so disconcerting to him. The fact that neither the sweet girl that his sister sometimes laughed about, nor the vicious killer that literally splattered her kidnapper was an act, both were very real. That, combined with the fact that he often got the impression that she was far smarter and more observant than she let on all combined into an impression that had lasted him from pretty much their first meeting.
Illya-chan was a creepy kid, no matter how cute she might be.
And right now she wasn't trying to be cute at all. In fact, with her tattered clothing, her discoloured eyes, the touches of blood on her face the wild way her pale hair was whipping around, she wouldn't have looked too out of place crawling out of a static filled television in order to harvest his soul.
Oh yes, this was definitely nightmare fuel for later.
"What is this? Do you intend to stand before me and the thief, little King? Or do you seek to slay me? Do you too wish to steal from me, to wrest my mastery of mankind's curses from me? Is that it? Does greed drive you? Ambition? Or do you simply seek to cut a young girl down without having to worry about guilt?"
The snow haired girl was not simply standing in place as she asked her questions. Instead she was circling around, trying to place herself in a better angle to circumvent the divine sword that Godou held ready. He knew her questions weren't meant in seriousness, rather they were a ploy meant to distract him, to leave him uncertain and open an opportunity for her to end him. He knew that he wasn't the one she wanted to kill, at least not more than anyone else in the city. Shirou was her target, and once she'd dealt with him then she'd turn her attention to the rest of the mortals about her, and that didn't bear thinking about.
Alright, he had to stay calm. He had a plan, he had a chance. All he needed to do was-
Over the past months, since the mess with Venus, the seventh Campione had come to realize just how much he needed to improve in regards to using the divine sword that was his Authority. He had good instincts, coordination and reaction time, all the ingredients needed to be a fine swordsman, but what he didn't have were skills and experience. Sure, he could fake it with a combination of natural talent and his Authorities augmenting him, but in the face of true sword users like Doni or Shirou it was painfully obvious how short he came. True, he could beat them in other ways, but not when it came to swords, and given that he had one of the strongest Sword Authorities in the East that was rather . . . underwhelming.
As it turned out, others had felt the same way and had set about trying to correct it. Athena had honed his instincts with her 'helpful' surprise attacks. Luo Hao had sent Kenshirou-sensei to see to polishing his basics and teach him some proper form. And then there had been his regular sparing matches with Erica, Liliana and Ena to sharpen his edge. No longer was he simply using reflex and intuition to wield the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi, now he had some actual skills. Granted, he wasn't on par with the likes of the Great Knights from Europe, who had been training in martial excellence since infanthood, but he was at a level where he could spar with them and not embarrass himself, a truly noteworthy feat when you thought about it.
All of that said, he still had a long way to go. Case in point, even though he was able to get the black blade up in time to protect himself it wasn't the most graceful of defences. Still, it did the job, because the blackened blades that would have perforated his organs were deflected by the weapon he held. After all, even if it was only wielded with the base strength of a Campione the sword was still a powerful divine weapon, one that would not succumb to such simple attacks.
"Hmph, this Steel that this god wields against us is strong, but it is stolen and corrupt! Pay it no heed, my King; it shall not be able to match my mettle so long as our strength remains as one!"
Hearing the voice of the sword in his hands came as something of a small surprise to Godou. Though he knew that Ame no Murakumo was a thinking being in its own right, a subordinate god really, the sword was so content to remain quiet most of the time. The last time the King of Disaster had heard from the Authority of Steel had been when it had faced the copy of it that Shirou had made to fight them during the mess with Venus. It only tended to speak up when offended or challenged. Apparently, facing the weapons that the possessed Illya-chan had hovering around her counted as the latter.
Tightening his grip on the weapon in his hands Godou took a careful step to the right. Trying to get into a more advantageous position, not that it was going to be too easy. Whatever had gone on between Shirou and Ahriman before he had arrived had not been kind to the park, large swaths of the place were torn up or blackened, chunks of stone and concrete as big as small cars having been uprooted with casual ease. Somehow the street lights were still working, though that was a minor miracle given how the much the ground had been ripped apart, but that wasn't what had him concerned.
What was of concern were the long puddles of black tar that seemed to litter the area at random. He wasn't sure what they were, or where they'd come from, but every instinct he had was screaming at him that they were dangerous and that he should avoid touching them at just about any cost!
Damn it! He'd seen a bit of the last clash between Shirou and his possessed sister, but it hadn't been enough to give him any great insight into whatever Authorities this god might possess. Oh well, wasn't that largely business as usual? And it wasn't as though that was completely true, he had some idea of what he was up against.
She came at him again, ragged clothes fluttering madly in the wind of her passage, giving her the disturbing appearance of having misshapen wings sprouting from her body. Once again her movements were fast, faster than a human could ever hope to match, but that was what he'd been expecting.
In the face of a foe that surpassed the parameters that bound humanity he felt something click inside him as a condition was resolved. As she closed with him he felt the Authority of the Raptor flare to life within him, answering his wishes and granting him the speed he needed. Still, he didn't move yet. Instead he held his ground, sword in a guard position as the possessed girl came closer . . . closer . . . NOW!
A blade almost as long as its wielder was tall slashed through the space the seventh Campione had occupied only a split second before. The God Slayer himself was away, behind Ahriman and under the nearest undamaged street light. Before Illya could react Godou swung his sword, speaking words of power as he did.
"Here! I wield the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi, the steel that turns back misfortune and shies not from the enemy!"
The divine sword that he held was a weapon of many abilities. In many ways it was among the most formidable Authorities that he had, even if it lacked the raw destructive power of some of his other divine powers. And among its many capabilities was one that he hadn't used very much, namely its power to manipulate weather and storms.
What he did was simply to conjure up a brief but strong gust of wind. It wasn't impressive, and with his control over the more esoteric aspects of the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi it was the best he could do for now. In truth the powerful gust would have been quite formidable against any normal humans, probably even against most mages. The wind was easily strong enough to send them flying, to send them tumbling end over end and most likely leave them nursing broken bones, or at least deeply bruised muscles. Against a god, even one garbed in mortal flesh as Ahriman was, it was little more than a minor inconvenience, something that was as significant as a slap to the arm would be to a mortal fighter, irritating and maybe a little painful, but ultimately inconsequential.
However, Godou's instincts had served him well once more. He'd felt that it was the right time to use the power of his sword, and as it turned out his intuition had been spot on once again. The gust caught the possessed Illya-chan as she was off balance. Had she been braced then she could have easily weather the gust, but with her weight upon only one foot and the other unable to give her any useful traction she was sent rolling off the path and into the waters of the lake.
Immediately the water started to hiss and bubble around her, and though the darkness of the night made it a bit hard to be sure the seventh Devil King could have sworn that the lake was starting to darken in the area that the girl had fallen into. He got the distinct impression that things were going to get more complicated very soon, but that was alright, his entire plan since the fight had begun had been to buy himself just a few seconds of free time. Evading her, knocking her into the water, it was to buy these few precious instants, and he intended to make use of them.
"Both eloquent and powerful, I am the sword of wisdom, that which tears foes apart. I am the strongest, for I am the one holding all victory in my hands. I shall vanquish all evil that dares to stand in my way!"
At his words the world changed, the divine power of the Authority of the Warrior with a Golden Blade overwriting the world about him. Above him the night sky vanished, replaced by a dark blue hue illuminated from beneath. The torn up park was gone, the land now glowing with a golden power, red rock formations jutting out of it, every part of the new landscape radiating the divine power that belonged to the so-called King of Disaster. And of course, there were swords.
Golden swords that were thrust into the ground, golden swords that stuck out of the rock formations, golden swords that floated about him in the air, and a golden sword that he now held in his left hand!
"What . . . What is this?"
Illya-chan stood some distance from him, her clothes soaked in water, no longer fluttering as they had before. Her clothing and hair were both plastered down and discoloured with the dark liquid that they were sodden with. Under other circumstances she might have looked both pitiful and adorable, like a kitten that had fallen into a pond only to struggle out with its fur all wet. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case now, instead the possessed form of his fellow King's sister more closely resembled some drowned corpse of a girl which had struggled out of the depths to wreak vengeance upon the one that had wronged her. Actually, that was a bit too close of a description for his tastes. Standing there, clutching her blackened weapons and with her face obscured by her sodden hair . . . damn she really did look like a horror movie monster.
. . . Why did the only other King that seemed to be halfway sane have to have such a scary little sister?
He banished the thought as he focused back upon the present. Hs Authority had taken this Ahriman by surprise. That was important, and it was also good! He knew that this particular divine power would not come as any great surprise to anyone, given that it was well known as one of his trump cards, but the reality of it was quite different from a description.
"You are known as Angra Mainyu, also know as the Destructive Spirit! You are the twin brother of Ahura Mazda, and just as he was born to create it was your nature to destroy!"
All around him there was a sound of steel moving as the swords responded to the spell words he was speaking. In his hand he could see the sword he held shift in form ever so slightly, the runes carved upon it altering as they were reforged by the wisdom he was imparting upon the blade.
"Ah, so that arrogant companion of my foe has finally been able to taste defeat? Boy, I am almost willing to offer you mercy for having dealt him his first defeat, but I think I shall refrain from doing so."
"You were opposed by Mithra, the Protector of Truth, so it is only fitting that you would know his sworn companion, Verethragna," Godou continued to speak, pouring more spell words into the sword that he was forging. "It was Mithra that defeated the serpent you created, so he was forever marked as your enemy. But you are not defined by your rivalry with Mithra, because your roots are even older!"
Letting go of the weapon that she held the possessed girl dropped into a squat and pressed both her palms into the ground. Under her touch the golden glowing earth seemed to blacken, the stain spreading out from her as the toxic nature of her miasma of curses soaked into the earth. But even as the blackness tried to grow, the swords in the ground began to vibrate like tuning forks that had just been struck. A low thrumming note began to echo around the battlefield as more and more of the impaled weapons picked up the note. The spreading corruption seemed to slow in its approach, then stopped altogether. There was a sense of it straining, of it trying to push on, but the swords held it back, their blades glowing brighter as more spell words appeared on them.
"You were first named by the religion of Zoroastrianism, then you were renamed as Ahriman by the Persians, you have been known by other names as well, and eventually became associated with the Christian image of the devil, however none of these are your true identity!"
Godou did not relent in his speech, even though he could feel the pressure upon his Authority. Ahriman's nature was as varied as the evils that she ruled over, but corruption was an aspect that was very closely tied to her core identity. It was her nature to usurp that which stood in her way, to blacken it, to corrupt it, to make it hers in a near parody of what it had once been. However, his Authority was one meant to sever the divinity of those he wielded it against. The more knowledge he bound into his blades then the more they were able cut into the very power that sought to overtake them. Had she tried to corrupt his Authority immediately after he invoked it then it might have worked, as it would have been unable to resist, but the precious seconds he'd bought to let him make his initial statements had been enough.
"I see, so you can brandish that troublesome blade which that troublesome warlord was so fond of." Despite the situation the possessed child did not sound concerned. If anything her tone was mildly irritated. "Tell me, oh King that slays the gods, do you believe that I would not have prepared to face the favoured weapon of my enemy's favoured companion?"
More of the strange hooked weapons began to appear about Illya-chan, first one or two, then dozens, then hundreds. Before long there were thousands of them, black distorted weapons hovering about her like carrion birds waiting for a corpse to feast upon. They rotated around her, spiralling up and up, even as they were unable to spread out. Instead they became a twisting tower of black blades, spinning within the golden land that his Authority had created.
What was she planning? The thought rang again and again in Godou's mind as he prepared his next words. The Authority of the Warrior was powerful, but he also knew that it was not invincible. There were ways to defend against it; there were ways to wear it down. Was that what she was planning with all those weapons of her own? To meet his attack with a multitude of her own weapons, to wear his down with her own until it was blunted enough that she would be able to resist it? Could it work? He wasn't sure. All he could do was push on.
"Like many of the oldest gods your roots can be found back in Africa, in the cradle of humanity. Back then mankind was primitive, unable to fully understand such complex issues as morality, good and evil, the weight of responsibility and the importance of culpability. They did not understand the passions and fears that could drive them to commit crimes against each other; they could not understand how lies and truths could be mixed to distort reality until they no longer knew what to believe in. All of this had to have a reason, something that was to blame, something that the primitive people of the time could rail against in some degree of surety."
All around him the golden swords were now glowing brightly, the spell words that he'd woven with his knowledge empowering them to reach the heights of strength he needed in order to bring the god before him down.
"That was you, the first nameless god of evil that mankind ever feared and worshipped. You were invoked in hatred when you were blamed for the acts of man, you were named in fear of what might come in the future, and you were worshipped by those that prayed for you to visit your evil upon those that were their enemies. Even if you had no name, no identity you were the object of revilement and reverence for all those in the time before gods had identities!"
"That changed in time though, and you became more than a force, you became a god with a mind and will of you own! But you were not like the other gods, how could you be? While they were incarnations of forces in the world you were an incarnation of the aspects of humanity that they most despised. You were the sins, the curses, the catastrophes, the misfortunes, the madness, the hatred, the rage and the despair!"
The great twister of black blades was reaching up into the sky now, the upper portion of it swelling and billowing out. The golden swords in the air tried to drive the growing intruders back, but unlike the swords upon the ground their numbers were lesser, and their notes quieter. It was not easy, they clashed with the black blades again and again, dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of the cruel hooked weapons broke against the golden swords, but no matter how many shattered more came to replace them, driving the swords of Godou's Authority before them.
"Here in this black land I call upon those that serve me," This time she was not speaking to Godou, instead she was invoking spell words as Ahriman called upon an Authority of her own. "Those that man might deny, but which are a part of his heart. That which mankind shies away from, yet dreams of in the blackness of their soul. Every curse, every sin, every blackened wish that has been made! Come, all Evils of mortal kind, your Master calls for you to answer his call!"
Up above the black tornado of serrated weapons seemed to scream in the wind in answer to her call, flashes of crimson sparking between the multitude of weapons like lightning in a storm. Godou could feel the tension in the air growing ever thicker as his Authority clashed with that of the possessed girl, and knew that he couldn't let himself be delayed. What was coming was going to decide if he had made the right choice, or if he had been a fool.
"You were feared by the other gods, reviled because you were different from them. You were more primal, more elemental than even the other old gods that emerged from the cradle of humanity alongside you! So you were always relegated to the role of the villain, the monster, the adversary that the gods of light and reason needed to battle against!"
Godou paused for a moment, then forced himself on, voicing the knowledge he had gained and forging it into the swords about him.
"And they were right to do so! You are no victim that has been dyed in colours not your own by the narrative of history, you are no misunderstood monster that has been forced into your role! You are what they all say you are, the cruelty of hatred, the spite of betrayal, the horror of defilement, the wrath of destruction! You are evil, you birth evil, you consume evil, every sin, every curse, every malediction, they are all you, and they are all yours! And you glory in them, you indulge in every evil and sin that evil gives birth to, taking joy in all the pain and sorrow and despair that arises from them! That is why you hate Shirou so much, because he has all the curses of mankind as well, but he does not wallow in the darkness they bring. Rather than being dragged down by them he instead raises them up! What say you to that, oldest of devils?!"
Illya's face had been responding to his words, growing increasingly twisted and infuriated as the seventh Campione had continued to voice his wisdom. Now, in response to the question that had been cast into her very teeth the possessed girl looked ready to tear the still living meat from his bones with her bare hands.
"How do you know my origins?!" The word was howled in order to be heard over the rushing of the thousands of blades that spun through the air about and above her. "The mysteries of my past are lost to mortals! Only those able to draw answers from the Void can know, and none in centuries have been able to gaze upon it as I waited in the netherworld! Even your servant with the spiritual sight has been unable to gaze upon me, hidden within mortal flesh as I am her sight cannot reach me! How?! How have you learnt?!"
Well, now she was certainly mad. At least that part of the plan seemed to be working. Now he had to hope that he hadn't misplaced his trust, and that this turned out like he hoped.
Flashback to a few minutes ago.
"Alright, Circe-san," Godou was doing his best to keep calm, but he had to admit that his composure was getting just a tiny bit strained. "You've told us the problem; can you do anything about it?"
The bronze limbed goddess nodded in reply.
"Odysseus has planned this well, and Ahriman is well suited to facing either you or your fellow King," she explained. "He anticipated that he might not be able to control which King faced them, so he plotted for either outcome. However, even if this is true you have advantages that Emiya Shirou lacks, and it is these advantages that will allow you to save the life of his sister where he could not"
"What do you mean?"
Godou was honestly curious. He didn't think of himself a lesser in comparison to the King of Steel, but he also fully acknowledged that the eighth Campione had considerable advantages. Not the least of which was that weird world of his filled with uncountable weapons. Having access to all of those gave him an unreal number of options, so what could he bring to bear?
"Your Authority that allows you to sever the divinity of a god, this is the principle power that Ahriman fears. Emiya Shirou cannot move against them, not without cutting his own sister in the attempt, but you could conceivably cut them from their host without hurting her. This was the principle stumbling block in Odysseus' plan, and the reason that I was meant to keep you here for as long as possible."
Circe paused, turning her gaze from first Godou then to Yuri.
"However I was not the only measure taken. So long as Ahriman is hidden within the mortal they have possessed then it is impossible for your servant girl there to use her Spirit Vision to draw forth the Memories of the Void to give to you. Without that knowledge you cannot forge your Authority, and so cannot move against Ahriman."
"Wait, hold on a moment!" The Kusanagi heir interrupted, confusion evident on his face. "Why would Ahriman possessing Illya-chan keep Yuri from using her Spirit Vision on them? It works fine against Campione, so it's not as though it doesn't work on people."
"Because while they are hidden your servant girl cannot gaze upon them," Circe explained. "When she looks at them her Vision shall see the sister of the Eighth God Slayer, not Ahriman. Just as she acts as a shield against your blades so too is she protection from such discernment."
Alright, that was bad! Godou knew that he normally lacked the knowledge he needed to forge his Swords, and he'd always made up for this in the past by having one of his girls impart the knowledge upon him. Yuri had been a perfect compliment to that Authority, with her Spirit Sight's ability to gain the information he needed. It had been a deciding factor during his bout with Voban, and even Erica had been impressed with it. So much so, in fact, that she had given him permission to take the Hime-Miko as his 'second woman'. Really, sometimes he just didn't get how that girl's head worked.
"However," That single word by Circe broke into his thoughts and brought his attention back to her. "This goddess was careful to observe Ahriman as much as she could, especially once it became clear just how dangerous they were. And though they were old and power and poisonous beyond belief this goddess remains a deity of magic while they are a deity of destruction and evil, I was able to draw knowledge about them from the Void without their realizing it. Now, this goddess stands before you as the only being in the world that can grant you the knowledge to forge the sword that will save your fellow King's sister."
Okay . . . that was . . . oddly convenient. Wait, hold on a minute!
"So, you already had this?"
"Indeed," she agreed. "I had not expected your highness to quite so readily accept my offer, so it was one of the assets I was willing to offer in exchange for your protection once this crisis has passed."
Ah, that made more sense.
"So . . . you have been planning to abandon your allies?"
He wanted to be completely clear on that matter, given that she seemed to want to join his group. Honestly, he wasn't entirely sure how he felt about that, but if she was going to be there then he wanted to understand what had led her to this.
"It was not a difficult decision. After it became clear how Odysseus had fallen it became the only path this goddess could walk while remaining true to herself. With the joining of Ahriman this became doubly true. Do not fear that I shall turn upon you and you allies once they are gone, Kusanagi-sama, a valiant King such as yourself would never stoop so low as to perform the deeds that would drive this goddess to such extremes."
Well, it wasn't quite the guarantee of loyalty that he would have preferred, but it would have to do.
"Okay, so I can use the Golden Sword and this knowledge that you'll give me to get Ahriman out of Illya-chan, do you have any advice as to what I can do next? Do you know what Authorities he can use? Anything?"
The white haired goddess shook her head, her eyes downcast.
"I fear I cannot aid you with much knowledge of what powers Ahriman may bring to bear against you in battle," She admitted. "Though this goddess was able to glean their origins and history from the Void the god of evil has been most restrained in regards as to which Authorities they have used. I know of their ability to take possession of a mortal, but I also know that a Devil King such as yourself does not need to fear being taken. It is the weakness of mortals that allows Ahriman to inhabit them, and the Children of Pandora possess too much divine might within them to be vulnerable to such a tactic. I have also seen them give form and life to sins and curses to create the beasts that they have unleashed upon this city. Again I do not believe it shall be an Authority that you need fear mid battle, since it requires a place to grow them and time for them to gain strength. Those are the only divine Authorities that this goddess has been witness to, though their very touch is enough to wither and corrupt most of the weak life and substances that Ahriman encounters."
Godou felt his brow crease as he mentally went over that. Well, that was both good and bad. On the one hand it seemed that he'd have to go into this fight more on the blind side than he would have preferred. On the other hand at least it didn't sound like he'd have to deal with more of those monsters, since the Authority that created them sounded like a fairly situational one. Of course, there was no guarantee that all Circe knew was completely correct. It could be that such a process was only needed for monsters that were meant to live a long time, and Ahriman was completely capable of pulling out more that would simply be more short lived, but still last long enough to be a dangerous factor in a fight.
He was brought out of his thoughts by a distant bang. Glancing over towards where the sound came from he noted a tall pillar of burning smoke reaching up into the sky, the source was a good distance off, but the fiery column was easy to see against the night sky.
"Ah, another of Ahriman's monsters has fallen to your allies," Circe noted, her own gaze turning towards the burning pillar in time to see it before it died away. "Odysseus anticipated that such would take place, but I believe he did not expect your response to be so swift and decisive. Your majesty had best act swiftly, lest he decide to abandon his current plan and take fresh steps that I know nothing of."
The seventh Campione nodded. It was true, further delay was only going to be of use to Ahriman. By now Shirou was almost certainly fighting them, and if they were possessing Illya-chan's body then there was almost no chance that it was going well for him.
"Then this maiden goddess asks that his majesty treat her gently, and that he forgives her forwardness."
Huh? What was she-
His train of thought was very thoroughly derailed as a pair of brass arms wrapped around his neck, then pulled him down as soft lips sealed themselves against his mouth. Oh, right. Why was it that this kept on catching him by surprise? Erica had done it several times, Yuri had done it, Liliana had done it, even Athena had done it, though in her case she'd poisoned him rather than grant him any knowledge. He really should be a bit more accustomed to dealing with-
. . . Was that her tongue?
After what seemed like entirely too long she released him and Godou found himself stumbling back a bit. That had been . . . intense to say the least. Not simply because of the kiss, which had been pretty searing on its own, but also due to the quality of the knowledge that had been imparted upon him. He'd experienced such a thing before, but never to this degree of clarity, not to this level of detail. If what his allies could do was implant the knowledge of an ancient tome into his mind this was akin to having some sort of advanced wiki dumped straight into his brain. Not only did he have the information, he also had pictures, interconnecting pages, search options and all kinds of other things. Well, it wasn't like that exactly, but it was the closest he could equate it to.
He supposed he shouldn't be all that surprised, Erica, Yuri, Liliana, all of them were mortal magic users of high quality, but Circe was quite literally a deity of magic, it was hardly unexpected that her own version would be of superior quality.
"Do you have the knowledge you require?"
Circe's questions seemed more than a bit absurd. This . . . this was a crystal clear multi-page dissertation on just how to mince Ahriman's divinity into nothingness. Well, that might be something of an exaggeration, but it was still the clearest trove of information he'd ever been imparted with.
"Uh . . . yes, I . . . I should have no problems with this."
Okay, so maybe he was still a bit on the tongue tied side from the enthusiasm that the goddess of the dawn had displayed during the transfer. The goddess in question nodded, then paused, her head tilting slightly to the side as she regarded him with a look that could only be described as 'speculative'.
"King Kusanagi . . . this goddess has another gift for you."
"Oh? Whaaampphh. . ."
Godou's words were cut off as Circe pulled him into another kiss. Behind him Yuri made a sound half way between a gasp and a squeak, apparently just as surprised as he'd been.
. . . Damn! He'd thought her earlier kiss had been passionate, this though . . .
Some distant, and not very sophisticated, portion of his brain wondered if he could ask her to teach Erica to kiss like this. Said thought was quickly apprehended by his denial, mercilessly bludgeoned and then hung from the nearest imaginary tree. That was a complication that he didn't need.
He was also distracted by the feeling of something else settling into his mind. He'd experienced this sort of thing before, when Erica, Yuri or Liliana had used their magic to impart the knowledge he needed to forge his golden swords. Just now he had experienced it again, only with a sharper clarity than he had ever thought possible. This though, this was different, deeper, heavier. He could feel more than just knowledge settle into his mind, it was more like a concentrated knot of information, feelings, and sensations all bundled up tightly together. He couldn't tell just what it was, but here was a feeling of . . . power. This wasn't just knowledge of a history; this was a secret that meant something, the sort of power that most mages would be willing to chew their own arms off for. This all came to him instinctively, even though he had no way of knowing it himself.
She had said she was a goddess of magic, hadn't she?
Oh boy, this could not end well. Godou had had some interactions with magic in the past, but while he could admire it in others, he'd not had much luck with it on a personal level. Erica had tried to teach him some magic, in the hopes that it would compliment his Authorities. Godou hadn't been happy about it, but in the end he'd decided that it would be less effort to go along with her than it would be to keep telling her 'no'. The blonde mage knight could be relentlessly tenacious when she wanted to be, and Godou knew that in the end he would end up cracking. As to how it had turned out, well . . .
A few months ago he'd found that his distant cousin had gotten into magic and had been practicing with a minor grimoire that allowed her to snap tiny wooden objects, like matches or toothpicks, with her will. When Godou had picked it up he'd accidentally snapped the wooden telephone pole in the street outside.
Just by holding the grimoire.
It didn't take much imagination to realize what might have happened when Erica had tried to teach him how to cast a basic fireball. On the plus side the building had been abandoned, and just the other day he'd seen a sign saying that there was going to be a clinic built on the cleared land. On the down side the History Compilation Committee had been forced to work extra hard that day to ensure that no one questioned why the flames had been a rather striking aquamarine colour.
After that particular incident Erica had decided that perhaps her King and magic really wouldn't mix, an opinion probably influenced by the fact he'd also managed to set her skirt on fire during the whole mess. Godou hadn't felt any need to object, his plate already full enough with the various sword work lessons he was having to deal with.
And now the goddess that had just sworn herself to his service had deposited a knot of powerful mystic knowledge in his head.
Oh sure, this was going to turn out all sunshine and rainbows.
Huh . . . so you could be sarcastic in your own head, who knew?
"Wha . . . what was that?"
Godou shook his head as he tried to dispel the sudden dizziness that hit him as the knowledge settled into his mind. It was just . . . sitting there, not unfolding, nor revealing itself to him. It was there, he knew it was powerful, but that was it.
"This goddess has decided to impart upon you the Dawn's Secret Archive, the hidden knowledge known only to the goddesses of wisdom and magic. As your majesty shall not be slaying me in order to claim an Authority from my defeat I have instead chosen to grant you this gift to signify our alliance."
She smiled at him, her appearance radiant.
"Be assured, this gift is a suitable token. Once you have learnt to unlock its knowledge I am certain his majesty will be able to use it to great effect."
Sincerity was laden on her every word, and Godou's instincts didn't seem to be picking up on any sort of description. Should he trust her? Well, did he really have a choice? If he was going to go to fight this Ahriman could he afford to be second guessing someone he hoped would have his back?
Did he have the time to worry?
So far the knowledge that he had been given by Circe seemed to be everything that he needed. Now he just had to use it.
The swords about him responded, and with a vast metallic whisper every single blade whipped about until their points were all aimed straight at the small form of Illya-chan.
"To the primitive mortals that first worshipped you, evil was a strange and confusing thing that they didn't understand!" He kept on speaking as he slowly began to walk towards the possessed girl. "In their minds there was no reason for the things that they did to each other, so that meant that it was not their fault that they were performing those deeds. To them it stood to reason that if they were not doing these deeds of their own choice, then it meant that there was some other force making them act so!"
"In their minds that was you! You were the force that could slip into them and cause them to act in ways that they regarded as abhorrent. Many times you were envisioned as the black snake, or the dark smoke, but always you were the evil spirit that could be blamed for their evil acts. You were the first demon to them, the first devil that tainted their innocence!"
With his last words the swords began to launch themselves at the possessed girl, first in ones and twos, then in dozens, then by the hundreds. Great waves of gold came crashing down upon her, only to be met by the spinning cyclone of blackened and warped sickle blades.
Met, and were destroyed.
Every time a blackened blade clashed with a golden sword both weapons were annihilated, shattered into powder. Again and again, by the tens, then the hundreds, then the thousands they were broken. The towering pillar of dark blades wavered under the withering assault, but even as their numbers were depleted more were spawned from the black aura of malignance that boiled out of Illya-chan's small form. Even so, the onslaught of swords continued undeterred, the entire golden landscape pouring them forth to maintain the effort. Little by little the wailing cyclone was driven down, shrinking as it lost more and more of the weapons that made it up faster than they could be replaced.
Godou could see how she intended to fight him. The Warrior Authority was powerful, but it was not invincible. Those swords could shred the divinity of a god apart; allowing them to destroy Authorities and weaken their target, but Ahriman was using that against them. Those black blades . . . every single one of them was an individual manifestation of her Authority, and each of them was also loaded with the malice and curses that made up the core of Ahriman's divine identity. His swords could destroy them, but the black blades could break them in return, that was the plan, the aim of all this! The God of Evil sought to blunt the Golden Swords, to force them to exhaust their edge upon the disposable weapons that had been used as a defence.
It could work, that was the weakness of the Warrior Authority after all, its first strike was devastating, but each successive strike wore its strength down quickly. This tactic of Ahriman's could not completely stop him, since the Golden Swords propagated faster than the blackened blades, but it didn't need to. All that she had to do was to blunt them enough that when they finally reached her she could resist the majority of their power. Godou could see it, and all his instincts were screaming at him that if he kept letting his enemy dictate the flow of the battle then he'd have no chance of winning.
He needed something different, something new, something that the enemy couldn't have seen coming. He wasn't able to think of anything right away, but he knew he needed to do something, so he went with his guts.
All around him the golden swords joined in his assault speeding beside him, forming a tunnel about him as he advanced as fast as he could. Up above him he could see the black cyclone seem to come crashing down as the blades that made it up ceased to spin and instead shot down towards him.
"You are killing her; you do know that, don't you?" Illya's distorted voice reached him even through the sound of metal and battle. "The more I have to use my power the more she is burnt out by it flowing through her. Every instant of battle where you push me is shaving away part of her soul. Is it really worth it?"
Godou tried to block out the words, knowing that they were nothing but a psychological tactic. This was why Shirou had been unable to win, because his enemy had the perfect shield, all Godou could do was trust that he could save Illya-chan before her soul gave out. She was strong; he knew that, his guts told him that she wouldn't crumble quickly or easily, so he had some time. That said, the snowy haired girl was a mortal, so in the face of a god there was only so much that she could endure, regardless of her strength or her will.
Sparks erupted in a crazed shower as the falling tide of blackened weapons came crashing down, only to be met by the massed golden swords about him, the world seemed to disappear into fire and thunder as the divinely wrought armaments contended for supremacy. Uncountable numbers disappeared, annihilated by the contest, but instantly they were replaced as each Authority continued to press on.
And through it all Godou never stopped moving, always pressing on, each of his hands clutching a divine weapon as he refused to pause.
THERE! There he could see her, the front of his tunnel of swords had finally managed to punch through her defences and now he could see her, his view unobstructed by the whirlwind of weapons. It had cost him though; he could feel his Authority straining to keep up the pace he had set, yet flagging as it was constantly met by resistance it could not overwhelm. Its edge was being worn away, and he wouldn't have much longer to use it while it was still effective.
"You were named eventually, and from there you spread to other religions. You became the spirit of destruction, the corrupter of the paradise of mankind's innocent past. You became the adversary of all. You did not earn these titles; they were forced upon you, just as were all the sins and curses of mankind as they sought to absolve themselves by finding a culprit. You are Ahriman, also known as Angra Mainyu, and you are the destructive spirit that mankind revered and reviled!"
It was almost a repetition of what he had already said, but there was enough original knowledge there to grant his blades extra keenness, extra strength as they clashed with the blackened tide. Every second that he was able to buy was precious.
"It is almost cruel of you to bring up my past that has so long been forgotten," The possessed girl commented, her tone oddly matter-of-fact. "For so long I have not thought of my origins, not remembered the old lands when mortals in mud huts prayed to me without words to leave them alone. I had almost forgotten it myself."
Then she was moving now, her speed rapid, but her movements inhuman, almost insectile in the way she crouched and used the weapons in her hands as limbs to pull her along. But she did not come straight at him, instead she was moving around him, taking advantage of the small clearing that existed in the centre of her cyclone of blades.
"They feared me so much back then, they blamed everything that they did upon me," her voice was as distorted as ever, but he was sure that there was a . . . wistful note in there. "Every time one of them struck their loved ones in anger it was because I had whispered in their ear. Every time a man took a woman by force when she was unwilling it was because I had enflamed his lust or stolen his reason. Every time one of them got greedy and stole from another, that was my fault as well."
She came at him, fast in a way that humans couldn't hope to be. Muscles, flesh, they just didn't work that way, not without magic to reinforce them. Still, his flesh was stronger than mortal biology could account for, and he had trained with a master swordsman, and been subject to Athena 'helping him to sharpen his fangs', as she put it. Even though she was faster than he was without an Authority to aid him he could still track her, anticipate where she was going, tell where she'd strike.
His dodge took him to the side even as the curved and serrated blades in her hands sliced through the air that he'd just occupied. He came back at her, but before he could even swing she was darting away, making space to keep her out of his reach.
"At the start it was all them blaming me, but do you know it didn't take me long before I tried all those things they said." The smile upon his fellow king's sister was too wide, too brittle, too jagged to be called sane. "I made them turn on each other. I made them lie, and rage, and lust, and hate. I made their water dry up, I made their food turn to ash in their mouths, I made them turn on each other over scraps, made them kill for dribbles of dirty water."
Godou suddenly realized that he wasn't seeing any more of the golden swords. They weren't reaching him here, not yet at least. The black whirlwind of blades had reformed and was keeping them from reaching him. The ground beneath him was also blackened, though it didn't seem to be as completely corrupted as some of what he'd seen earlier. Maybe too much of her strength was engaged in maintaining the whirling blades for any to act upon the soil she was standing upon, but for now that wasn't an issue. What was of utmost urgency was cutting down Ahriman's divinity so Illya-chan could be freed.
He charged in, not waiting to let her take the initiative, instead he came in with the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi first, the swing meant to knock her defending blades aside, leaving an opening for the golden sword in his left hand. Dual wielding wasn't a skill that he'd had much practice in, but all he needed was to make this first attack count and-
"They gave me their evils, their curses, their insecurities, and I dined well upon them! I grew, I strengthened, and in time even the other gods that emerged from that nameless time feared me. Do you really think I will be so easily brought down by one of that Witch's illegitimate children? No Devil King has ever taken my Authorities, none of them! Do you know why that is?"
His sword struck her blades, but even as it did so she was moving backwards, jumping upwards and away so that the golden sword stabbed under her, even as she continued to talk.
"That is why I intend to make this girl's brother watch as I slowly flense her soul away to nothingness, then spend the next century making him beg me to let him die. He stole what was mine, granted the curses of all mortal-kind, he made them serve one that was not me. I shall never forgive that! Never! He shall know pain and suffering as though they were lovers, and I shall visit them all upon him."
Up above them the black blades were starting to melt away, his foe unable to sustain their numbers while dodging him. The problem was that Godou didn't know if it would be soon enough. The Warrior Authority felt tired, almost exhausted. He'd never sustained it for this long, and it seemed that Ahriman's plan to wear away at its edge might well have succeeded. The swords that remained felt dull, blunted by repeated use to the point where their former keenness was all but gone.
Would it be enough? The defence was almost broken, but would the dulled swords be enough to cut her divinity? This was going to be far, far closer than he was happy with. Still, he wasn't giving up yet!
"You . . . you are just a stone in my path. A large stone, to be sure, and one that could harm me if I am careless, but in the end you shall still be cast aside. Odysseus was able to tell me much of your strengths, and I know you have gained strength from other gods you have slaughtered, but it shall not be enough!"
And what was making it even worse was that Ahriman would not stop talking!
The young Kusanagi had faced foes that liked the sound of their own voice before. Apollo had been one, someone that would just not shut up even in the midst of pitched battle. This god though, she took it to another level, but did not allow it to slow her down. Apollo had been prone to theatrics, often pausing as he had spoken, almost as though he were on a stage and was expecting his foe to just wait for him to finish before resuming the fight. Ahriman, on the other hand, never stopped. Even as she was saying how she planned to torture Shirou she was constantly on the move, skittering around him with those inhuman movements. While she taunted him she attacked, darting in to swing her blades at him, then pulling back before he could take a swing at her with his golden sword.
More than that though, her constant chatter was throwing him off. He wanted to ignore it, but that damned distorted and multi-harmoniced voice seemed to burrow past any attempt of his to block it out. Even as he tried to concentrate on his defence and retaliation he found himself paying attention to her words enough that it distracted him. Was it an Authority? She'd said that she whispered into the minds of mortals, was this something like that? There was no way to be sure.
"I'm going to kill you, Godou-chan. I'm going to kill you, then I'm going to kill anyone else that gets in my way, then I'm going to find the thief and introduce him to every face of suffering that I can. If you are fortunate then perhaps I will not kill any of those dear to you on my way from this city, perhaps they will even be able to endure to aftermath as I allow my pets to run wild."
She spoke almost casually, as though she was discussing her choice of the menu at a restaurant. And all the while she was coming at him with all the ferocity of a true berserker. Her blades flashed through the air, and it was all he could do to keep falling back, getting his own swords up in time to deflect the blows rather than let them cut into his flesh. It was a crude and basic defence, but it was working . . . for now, at least.
Damn it! He couldn't keep giving ground though; soon he wouldn't have any more to give, not with the whirlwind of blades that Ahriman was using to block the golden swords so close. If he backed into that the King of Disaster was going to find his back shredded if he wasn't careful. He'd have to . . . wait a moment!
Godou finally became aware that the sound of clashing metal that had been filling his ears was all but gone. Before he hadn't noticed because all he'd been able to hear, aside from that damned insidious voice of Ahriman, was the thunder of his own heartbeat in his ears as he forced himself to keep up with the possessed girl's vicious speed. Now though, now that he was forcing himself to pay attention he realized that the sounds about him had changed, something was different.
Ahriman came at him again, but this time he was better prepared, resolve running through him, firming his stance, giving him strength. Her weapons came at him again, but this time he didn't just deflect, instead he locked the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi with her blades. The cruel hooks caught on the divine weapon, but the god sword did not break, or chip, or weaken. For a moment Godou considered saying something, anything really, just as long as it might get the god of evil to shut up for a moment. Then he dismissed the idea, and just pushed as hard as he could.
He wasn't using the Authority of the Bull, nor the Camel, nor anything else. This was all just his own strength, and while it was nowhere near the superhuman levels that his stolen divine powers allowed him to reach it was still impressive by the standards of mortals. The young Kusanagi had been training hard for the last few months, and all that practice with his sensei, his allies, and even with Athena, had toughened him up considerably. Illya-chan was a slight girl, and he was a strong guy, taken by surprise Ahriman wasn't able to brace as well as she could have done, and was sent stumbling backwards as she tried to keep her balance. Taking advantage of the momentary reprieve Godou looked around.
Where once there had been a massive circling column of blades now there were only a few of the black blades flitting about above them like birds lost in the night sky. Had it not been for the reflection of the street lights coming off them he would not have been able to make them out.
A surge of exaltation ran through him as he realized that her defences were broken, that he could launch his attack, but then he saw what lay beyond the one-time cyclone and felt his heart catch in his chest.
Of all the thousands upon thousands of swords that had once been only a handful now remained. Their number was easily greater than the remaining blackened weapons, but even so they were not even two dozen of them left. What was worse was that Godou could feel just how dull they had become. His mind raced as his eyes flicked back to Ahriman, then back to the swords, then back to the possessed girl. Were they still sharp enough to cut her free? Could he reinforce them by using further spell words? No, he knew that instinctively as the thought crossed his mind. He had already poured all the power that the knowledge Circe had given him into the swords, they had been as keenly edged as he could make them. There was nothing more that could be forged into them, nothing more to hone them once more.
Ahriman had planned this well, but perhaps he could still make it work. The swords might be dulled, but they were still the divinity severing blades that were so feared by the gods. Frantically he racked his brain, trying to think of anything else that could help, but nothing sprang to mind. He was just going to have to deal with this as best he could.
Reaching out to the golden swords he called them to him, causing all of the Authority born blades to shoot down. There was a sound of shattering metal as the last of the blackened weapons tried block them, only to be broken. Still, their efforts cost him four of the few blades that remained, and he needed every one that he could preserve.
"You have lost your chance," that infuriatingly casual voice broke into his thoughts again as he tried to concentrate. "You were too slow, too indecisive, too uncommitted. Another God Slayer, a better one, would not have allowed me to draw them into a drawn out contest as you did, they would have marshalled their full strength and attempted to overwhelm me in a single clash while my own power was scattered. You though, you chose to meet me on the field that I had determined, you allowed me to lead you about like a hog with a ring in its nose!"
The swords were now arrayed around him, seventeen in all. Damn it! He hated to admit it, but Ahriman might have had a point. His charge had been the best option open to him at the time, but was there a way that he could have done it better? Perhaps if he'd used all the swords at once it might have worked, but if it hadn't then he'd have had nothing to cover himself with if it failed. Hesitation, just like Ahriman had said, that had been what had held him back. NO! No, he couldn't let himself be dragged down by the Heretic God's words. Yes, he had held back, but it had been caution, not hesitation. Going all out might have let him win, but there was an at least equal chance that it would have simply left him open to be cut down. His choice had been the measured one, the calculated one.
The problem was that he still wasn't sure if it had been the right one.
"In many tales the darkness and evil has always been overcome," Godou began, forcing what spell words he could into the blades as he drew again upon the dwindling power of the knowledge that he been given. "In ancient times you unleashed many of the original evils and devils upon the world, but always they would fail as other gods and heroes rose up to face them. Mithras was famed for being able to defeat the great serpent you created with a single tap of his mace. This tale has been repeated through the ages, though the names might change the truth remains, that the god of evil could not win!"
It wasn't enough, not nearly enough. The blades did sharpen slightly as his words were woven into them, but it was nowhere near the keenness they had possessed at the time of their invocation. Still, it was better than nothing, and every edge he could gain would be valuable. Certainly, it made the swords more energetic, if not more deadly. As one every remaining blade spun in the air, orienting themselves so that their points were aimed directly as the petite form that Ahriman was possessing.
"Is that the best you can do? Is dredging up the tale of an early defeat of mine the best that you-"
Her words were cut off as one of the swords shot forth, impaling her just above her naval.
Had the sword been a weapon of actual metal then Godou would have been going through a panic attack at that moment, mainly due to imagining just what Shirou would do to him after he found out that he'd stabbed his sister. However, these swords were not of material construction, but rather were forged from divine power. They cut at divinity, not flesh, and it was for that reason that he was secure in their use now.
"Not enough, little king, not nearly enough to-"
Again, he cut her off, this time by launching another sword to stab her through the heart. Godou was done with listening to her, done with letting her try to get to him. This was either going to work or it wasn't, but at least he could have the pleasure of getting Ahriman to just shut up, and that in itself would be a worthwhile victory.
Another sword shot forth, then another and another. Nearly half of the total number he had were gone, and he didn't know if they would be enough. Still, he had to try.
Illya twisted and writhed as she tried to fight back. The voice continued to torment her, but it was no longer as . . . oppressive as it had been before. It still continued to question her, still kept on trying to force its way into her thoughts and twist them, but the whispers were no longer as insidious as they had been.
Something was distracting her tormentor, that she was sure of, and they were unable to devote as much effort to breaking her as they had before. She'd had a vague impression that Onii-chan had been there earlier, that he was in some sort of conflict. It hadn't been that she had been able to perceive him in any way, but it had felt as though his presence had drawn nearer, and she had been able to draw strength and comfort from it, even as he had been caught in a fight of some sort. But then he had gone, and then there was the feeling that Godou-san had taken his place.
-He ran away! He left you alone, shirked his duty to save you! Who do you think he ran off to save? Was it Guinevere? Does he love her now? Has he forgotten about you? Was it Tiamat? Has he grown to love her, and forgotten all about the little girl that will never grow up? Does he want a woman to hold? After all, why would he pass over one of the most beautiful women in the world for a little girl?-
The words hurt, jabbing at her insecurities as they did, but despite that they were easier to ignore now. It was as though they lacked the more subtle and venomous quality that let them hurt her so before. Where before they had been surgical blades cutting into her weaknesses and picking at emotional wounds that had never completely healed over, now they were crude blows swung without finesse or grace. This was now something she could endure, something she could fight back against.
Well, she would if there was anything that she could find to fight against!
Despite the distraction that the presence holding her was suffering from it still didn't change her situation as far as any attempt to get free was concerned. She still had no form, no body, no substance. All she had were her perspective and her thoughts, but both were starting to sharpen as she gained back more control. It was a small thing, but it was an improvement on her previous condition.
-They don't care about you, not at all! They will turn on you, hurt you as soon as you become inconvenient, as soon as you get in their way! Do you think Shirou will stand by you? Do you think he'll put you ahead of a chance to get what he wants? He'll cast you aside just like the others did, and then you'll be all alone, nobody to help you, nobody to care!-
The words came again, and this time she could almost taste the venom that was suffusing them as they bit into wounds left by her supposed abandonment by her father, and the treatment visited upon her by her own family. She knew better now, knew that Kiritsugu had not left her by choice, but had been kept out by her grandfather, but that didn't make the pain and loss that she'd felt for years simply go away. The scars remained, and her tormentor had no issue with picking at them in order to hurt her. Had that been all that they had concentrated upon then it might well have worked, but they had overextended.
Illyasviel wasn't completely sure how the presence that whispered to her knew all that it did, but it was becoming increasingly clear to her that whoever it was, they were working with incomplete information. Before they had played upon her fears of being beneath the likes of Tiamat or Guinevere, when it came to competing for her adopted brother's affections, and given her competition she felt such worries were justified. Now though, it was trying to get her to question the simple trust that she had in Shirou, trying to make her think of him abandoning her.
That was a misstep, a stupid one.
Illya wasn't someone that did things half heartedly, when she hated then the object of her hatred had better pray that she never got her hands on them, because what she would do would have the devil pausing to take notes. When she loved it was equally fervent, and with a loyalty that would have her walking side by side with someone into the gates of hell if that was what it came to. Shirou had fought Berserker to protect her! Him, a normal human desperately seizing every unfair advantage he could had stood against a blackened and warped Heracles to protect her where any normal person would have passed out from fear, or just died of a heart attack.
No, she might believe a lot of things, might fear even more, but Shirou abandoning her? No, that was something she never had to fear!
As though in response to her defiance of her tormentor the Einzbern heiress suddenly felt something . . . shift. The pressure upon her mind didn't go away, but it did change, as though a weight that had been upon her had moved. For a moment she thought that it was her imagination, but then it happened again. And again. And again.
Each time the pressure upon her shifted as though it had been struck, not enough to dislodge it, but enough that Illya could feel its force upon her weaken just a bit. To any normal person, even a strong willed one, the change would have been of minimal relief, not something that they could have made use of, but Illya was no normal girl. She was Illyasviel Von Einzbern, and she had been trained in magic in a way that most magi would have considered to be torturous. The mental arts had been one of the skills she had been trained in, preparation for not only controlling as wild a Servant as Berserker but also so she would know how to defend her mind against such magi as might try to attack or suborn her. She knew how to exert her will, even if her magecraft was denied to her, and she knew how she could use this apparent weakness.
-He tries to kill you! He tries to cut you down! How dare he betray you like this, how dare he turn on you and your brother?! He is the enemy, he is the betrayer! How would you bring him down? The thoughts are in your mind, the plans you have made, the scenarios you have envisioned. What are they?! Give them to me! Tell me how you would kill him! Break him! Ruin him!-
This time the words were less of a whisper trying to insinuate itself and more of a roar trying to overwhelm her completely. The snowy haired girl felt the force behind the demand, felt it try to tear into her mind, but she fought it back. She could feel the power there, knew that there was enough strength to shatter her mind into pieces if it so chose, but at the same time she knew that the full brunt of it was not being brought to bear upon her. She didn't know why that was, and at this point she didn't really care.
The roar had been painful, but it had seared her mind clear of the lethargy and disorientation that the whispers had lulled her into before. This . . . this was brutal, painful, and overwhelming, but it was something that she knew how to fight, knew how to stand against. Yes, her unknown foe was stronger than her, and they seemed to have no compunctions against hurting her, but it was better than the dripping poison that had been eating away at her.
Yes, had she lips then a savage smile might have touched them. This was definitely better than before!
This was not good!
"Well, is that the best that you can throw against me, little King?!"
To anyone that didn't understand the situation it would have appeared as though things were overwhelmingly in Godou's favour. The possessed form of Illya was only barely remaining on her feet and seemed to more closely resemble a pin cushion than anything else. Golden swords impaled her limbs from every angle; her torso had been run through by six different swords that should have sliced almost every one of her internal organs into mince. There was even one impaled through her neck, forcing her head to lean at an angle that was normally only found in broken corpses, that she could still speak clearly made it all the more unnerving.
"It is not enough, not nearly enough. The edge of your blade has been worn down, the keenness lost, the sword left powerless! What now? How do you intend to keep your promise to your fellow King? Or will you come to him with the blood of his sister on your hands? Perhaps you should allow me to be the victor in this battle; after all, I shall merely slay you. I have seen him in his sister's thoughts, and he cares for her to an almost insane degree. What do you think he will do to you if you come to him as her slayer? How far do you believe his rage would push him?!"
As she spoke the swords that had impaled her began to break, shattering into golden sand that floated in the air, glowed briefly, and was then gone. Godou was frantically going over what options remained to him, few though they were, and was happy to let her talk if it bought him a few more precious moments.
"You know, I'm almost tempted to let you kill this girl, simply to see how far it can push him," Illya-chan's face twisted into an expression of unhinged curiosity and glee that sent a chill down his spine. "Thief though he might be he still possesses the Curses, all of them. How far do you think he would be willing to go into their use for the sake of vengeance?"
Another sword broke apart and faded away, and those black and red eyes came up to meet his.
"He has used them before. He has even dredged their depths in order to drown his foes in curses, but never has he used them with malice before. How dark do you think he can make them, if they are driven by his hatred and despair? How much do you think he could push his curses with rage burning in him?!"
Personally, Godou didn't think it would come to that, regardless of how this battle turned out. Oh, there was a good chance that Shirou might kill him if he did end up killing Illya, but the young Kusanagi was pretty certain that there would be no torture involved. Shirou was scary, but there wasn't anything about that was really malicious.
On the other hand, he had planned to kill, resurrect, then kill again the people that had kidnapped his sister all those months ago. Godou wasn't entirely sure how much of that had been a genuine plan, and how much of it had been something just said in the heat of the moment, but there had been definite fire there.
No! He couldn't let himself be distracted like this, he had to think! Could he use his new chariot Authority? It did have anti-darkness properties, and most of the curses that Ahriman had been throwing around seemed to manifest as a dark miasma, one made of darkness rather than gas. Could that work? Well, it might serve to protect him and hurt Ahriman, but as long as she was possessing Illya-chan that still left it as mainly useless. The Warrior Authority had been his best bet, and now it was gone.
No, wait! That wasn't completely right; he still had one golden sword left, the one in his left hand. The problem was that by this point it was so blunt that it might as well have been a letter opener. The power was still there, but it had lost the edge it needed to reach the divinity he wished to target. But . . . but he still had it! There had to be some way to use it, every Authority was a power that eclipsed the greatest works of mortal magic, it was the very power that made the gods the supreme beings that they were. There had to be some thing he could do with it, there just had to be!
The last sword broke, and Illya's body stood up, her head straightening with an audible crack as the blade in her neck disappeared.
"Oh, so you aren't going to come at me?" The words were mocking to the point of scornful, her eyes glinting as she extended her hands. "Well, that will be fine, I just have to . . ."
She trailed off as she closed her hands on . . . nothing. Black mist snaked between her fingers, but failed to form into the hooked blades that she had been using. It took Godou a moment, but the pieces clicked together in his mind. Whatever ability Ahriman had been using to create those blades, be it an Authority or some sort of lesser ability, it was now exhausted. It was a small victory, but at least it meant that he'd no longer have to be facing those wicked blades any more.
Then the possessed form of the snowy haired girl was coming at him like a wild animal, and he no longer had any time for other thoughts.
The black miasma coiled around her hands, so thick that he could barely see her pale skin. Those hands reached out, to tear, to grasp, to rip. There was no hesitation, and again, the seventh Campione found himself falling back simply to stay out of her reach.
"You still have one sword that has an edge!" Ahriman hissed as she came at him. "Use it! Use it or I will kill you! That is the only choice left to you, little slayer, kill this girl, or let me kill you with her!"
Internally Godou cursed, because he could see that the Heretic God was right. Maybe he had grown tired as the fight was going on, maybe Ahriman had been holding back and was now going all out, maybe the loss of one Authority had somehow opened up the use of another, he wasn't sure. All he knew was that if things kept up like this then he was going to lose. No, perhaps that wasn't the right way to put it, it would be more accurate to say that he would be denied any options other than the ones she'd stated, kill or be killed. No middle ground.
Damn it! There had to be another way! There had to be!
It came so suddenly that Godou had barely any time to react. The possessed girl suddenly abandoned any attempts to actually fight and just leapt straight at him. To any normal fighter the action would have been suicidal, as it left them no means of dodging or defending against any sort of retaliation, but to her it was an act meant to force him to take action, to kill her, or let her kill him!
Godou's mind went oddly blank, even as both adrenaline and the vitality of a Campione accelerated his senses to the point where everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Illya-chan was there, leaping at him like some sort of rabid animal, her hands wreathed in miasma and her face distorted into a snarl that was in no way human. His hand had started to come up on pure reflex, bringing up the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi so that the point would intercept the oncoming foe.
No! The King of Disaster felt the blood drain from his face as he realized what was going to happen. Ahriman was trying to literally impale herself upon his sword, or force him to drop it. Would that even work? She was moving so fast . . . Frantically he cast around, trying to think of anything that he could do. For a moment he was reminded of the definition of insanity, attempting the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. How many times had he already tried to think of something, anything, that could help? Every time he always ran into the same problem, that every one of the options remaining to him would not serve to save Illya-chan. All he could do was avenge her after his own power destroyed her body, there seemed to be nothing else he could do.
Like a dream, or perhaps more accurately, like a nightmare, the small form clad in ragged clothes drew closer and closer. To his panicked mind it looked almost as though she was drifting through the air like a cloud, but the truth was that she was more like the unstoppable doom of a falling meteor. Damn it! He didn't want to cut her; he didn't want to kill her! He wanted to save her, he wanted to cut Ahriman!
Cut Ahriman . . .
Those two words stuck in his head, repeating again and again as Illya-chan fell upon his blade with glacial slowness. Her hands were extended, enough that she would be able to seize him even after being impaled. With a god inhabiting her she probably wouldn't die immediately, even from a deadly wound inflicted by a divine sword, long enough for her to push that miasma into him directly. He'd seen what it had done to Shirou, and there'd not be anyone to save him as he had his fellow King.
Cut . . . Ahriman . . .
There was something . . . something he was missing! He could see it, feel the edges of an idea in his mind, but it stubbornly refused to come into focus. Profanities that were very out of character for him filled his mind as he saw the last of the space between Illya-chan's chest and the tip of his sword begin to disappear. Why!? Why couldn't he get it?! That wasn't a golden sword; it would cut her, kill her, leave the possessing god unharmed! It was the other sword that would do what he wanted, but it was blunt, useless, powerless! The only sword he had that was still keen was the one that was going to take the life of the one he promised to save!
It was as though his body made the realization before his mind did, as his fingers uncurled from a hilt. Not from the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi, though, but rather from the solid golden hilt that was clasped in his left hand. Yes! He saw the path! He saw how he could win! He-
The world returned to speed with shocking swiftness, a flash of white taking up his vision before he was bowled over by the small form crashing into him. He barely had time to register the ground slamming into his back before a wail of pain almost deafened him. Looking down he saw the sword that had impaled Illya though her heart, the razor sharp Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi, a sword able to kill even gods, its edge so keen he could have used it to reduce a steel block into filings if he'd so chosen. The sword he had stabbed her with.
The golden sword he had stabbed her with.
"N-No, this . . . this isn't right!" For the very first time he heard something other than malice and mockery in her stolen voice, there was confusion, bewilderment even. "The swords were blunted, broken, they had no edge left! How . . . how did you . . . ?"
"Ahriman, god of evil and misfortune, the god that brings ruin, causes ruin, leaves ruin and death and discord! You are old, you are powerful, and you are fearsome," His hand turned, twisting the sword embedded in her and drawing a gasp of pain from her lips, even though not a drop of blood spilled forth from where the blade entered flesh. "But . . . I don't like losing."
Had Godou been able to see his face then he would have been somewhat shocked by the savage grin that had spread across it. The truth was that for all of his admirable qualities of kindness, loyalty and moderation the young Kusanagi wasn't nearly as self aware as he thought he was. He claimed that he wanted to have a normal life, that the matters of gods and magic were an intrusion, but that was not the truth of what went on in his heart of hearts.
Erica was probably the one that had summed it up best, even if it was just in the privacy of her own thoughts. She had called Godou a barbarian that was enamoured of civilization. Had he been born in an era of times long past then he would have been the peer to such conquerors as Alexander the Great, or Genghis Khan, he would have carved out a kingdom from squabbling tribes and disparate settlements. Born as he was, into the modern era, Godou saw no use for the warrior instincts that could make him so dangerous, saw them as unnecessary, however, even if that was what he told himself the truth was that Godou had a brutal and savage side to his nature, one that revelled in battle as the only time when he truly came alive.
He was also the Campione with the greatest number of Authorities in the world. Granted, many of those Authorities had conditional restrictions upon them, but even so twelve Authorities was an unprecedented number for one so young. Even Voban, old and vicious as he was, only possessed eight or nine of his own. That, in many ways, was Godou's trump card, his adaptability due to his myriad options. Combining Authorities was normally dangerous and difficult, except in the cases where such divine powers had strong compatibilities with each other, certainly not something to just do in the heat of the moment.
But that was exactly what he had done.
In truth the seventh Campione had a considerable advantage in this effort, given the nature of the Authorities he was working with. The Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi was a weapon able to absorb and use the powers of the enemies it came into contact with. More than that, it was able to use those stolen powers to empower itself still further. As an independent divine being the divine sword was only a middling being at most, but as a sword in the hand of a powerful wielder . . . that was when the divine blade truly displayed its mettle.
What Godou had done was to have the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi absorb the last of the golden swords, thus taking on its power and aspects. It had become a divinity severing blade, and one with keenness so honed that the merest touch was enough to slice deeply into its victims.
Cutting their divinity, not their flesh.
With a loud exclamation of effort he dragged the sword upwards, ripping out the blade in a way that would have left Illya-chan's upper torso almost completely bisected had it been a mundane weapon. The possessed girl fell backwards, staggering as her hands came up to clutch at the wounds that weren't there.
"You . . . You . . ."
The sheer venomous hatred that permeated her voice was chilling, despite the fact that she was clearly on her last leg. She glared at him with the sort of unrelenting fury that would have been the stuff of nightmares under other circumstances. Instead, the young Kusanagi heir just felt angry at the being that was possessing the girl. It was a dull and tired anger, but it still smouldered like resting coals, ready to burn any that touched it.
He brought the sword around again and aimed for her neck!
Illya could feel the situation changing. Things were still as murky as they had been, her senses a mess and her understanding of her situation still far from as complete as she would have liked it to be, but she was starting to figure things out.
The whispers were largely gone now, having faded to little more than background noise. They still kept up-
-Give up. There's no point. He left you. All alone again. Nobody cares. Everyone will just let you down.-
-but she got the impression that there wasn't anywhere near as much attention being put into them as there had been before. The concepts that it was trying to push onto her were still hurtful, painful to contemplate, but there were nowhere near as sharp as they had been before. Whatever force had her trapped as she was, it was distracted, and she had no intention of letting the opportunity that presented her with be wasted.
She hadn't just been protecting herself this entire time, though that had been her main focus. As the force suppressing her had grown weaker she'd begun to devote a small portion of her strength to trying to fight back. It hadn't been much, since she didn't want to alert her unknown enemy as to her being able to before she was ready, but it had been informative.
Without a body she couldn't struggle, as she was she was simply her mind, a mental construct made to let her keep her sanity in the face of a situation that could have driven a less prepared person insane. Without a body, without flesh, she had only her will and her mind. Well, actually that wasn't completely true, she also had her magecraft.
It was harder to access than she thought it would be, her magic circuits both being there and being out of reach. Still, though the physical aspects were beyond her the spiritual portions remained in her grasp. Using them was not easy, in fact it was quite uncomfortable, but compared to what Illya had been enduring for most of her life it was simple for her to endure. She could access her prana, she could use her magecraft. She didn't know if it would be enough, but she didn't have any intention of just laying here helplessly as her tormentor slowly picked her apart. She was strong, and she was stubborn, but she knew that she wasn't unbreakable, after all, no-one was. No, she would wait for an opportunity to present itself, and then she was going to come out swinging with everything she had in her.
-Can't succeed. Will never succeed. Just another failure like all the rest that have been thrown away. Just another broken doll that nobody cares about.-
The whispers came again, trying to worm their way into her head, trying to undermine her resolve. She almost chuckled, despite the severity of her predicament. Earlier they had been more subtle, more persuasive, more insidious. Now, they were almost predictable, easily ignored as she was able to recognize them for the attack that they were. Where before they had been a poison dripping into her ear, now they were blows that she could see coming. No, the problem was that even if the torture had lost its fangs the pressure had remained, that crushing force that bore down upon her from every direction.
Whatever force was trying to break her was also seeking to destroy her through more brutal means. Before it had been subtle as well, something hidden behind the whispers, but it had been there. She was reminded of the story of the frog in the pan, unwittingly dying as the temperature slowly crept up on it without it noticing. Whatever force held her here had been trying to do something similar, increasing the pressure even as it tried to break her down mentally. Had all gone as it had hoped then she might not even have noticed her essence being crushed as her mind fell into despair. The gambit had failed though, and it seemed that she was now facing a more frontal assault based upon simple power.
Well, that she could handle, she could take it for a little while longer at least. Time enough to build her strength for what was to come. Time enough to wait for an opportunity to show itse-
Her thoughts were cut off mid-word as the blackness around her suddenly seemed to tear. Golden light flooded in, even though she had no eyes with which to see it. Still, sightless as she was, deaf as she was, numb as she was, she could still perceive the world about her, and she could feel cracks and breaks forming in the power that was keeping her trapped. She felt it waver, caught off guard by this sudden change of events, and she knew that she was never going to get a better chance than this.
Her mind and her magic lashed out as one, her own power digging into the cracks that had formed and ruthlessly tore at them. She knew that it was just a mental projection, a means of understanding what her magical sense were telling her. She knew there were no real cracks to pull at; there were no limbs that she controlled, but that didn't matter. Even if it was just an interpretation there was still reality behind it, and that was enough for her.
The enemy screamed, the whispers gone, replaced with a keening that seemed to pierce her mind and threaten to rend it apart. Pain unlike anything she'd ever endured before ran through her entire being, a pain that wasn't dependant upon anything as simple as nerves and neurons, this was pain on a spiritual level, on a conceptual level. It consumed her entire world, seeming to fill it up to the very top with words that became gibbering, and then seemed to go beyond madness into an insanity that seemed to be sane.
-Not this! Never this! Can't break free! Never be free! Trapped here forever! Held here forever! Mine for all eternity! Mine to break! Mine to torment! Mine to consume! Mine, mine, mine mine mine minemineminemineMINEMINEMINEMINEEINEMEINEIEINEMEMNIEIEIEINMMMIIIINNNEEEEE!-
Illya could feel it, clawing at her mind, trying to get in, to run wild, to destroy everything she was and leave her a hollowed out husk. This was torture that would have broken a normal person, shatter them into nothing and leave them an empty wreck. It hurt! It hurt so much!
Had the Einzbern heiress lips then they would have curved into a savage smile.
Pain, pain was an old friend to her. Yes, this was more pain than she had ever experienced, but she could endure it. She worked through it, she pushed on, she refused to accept less.
Illya was a Master in the Holy Grail War, and no Master had ever been unaffected by the Servants that they interacted with. How could they not be? The Servants that they summoned were the great heroes and monsters of the past, beings that had so made their marks upon history that the world itself had sat up and taken notice. How could you be in the presence of such and not be changed?
To be sure, just how one was affected was dependant upon the person in question. In the Fourth Holy Grail War the Master of Rider had been inspired and strengthened by his contact with one of the great Kings of the world, going from an immature youth to a man that the whole Clocktower would give regard to, if not in all cases respect. On the other end of the spectrum had been the Master of Lancer, a lord of great reputation and talent who had ended up losing everything due to his feelings of paranoia, inferiority, and contempt for his Servant.
In the fifth War Shirou had been inspired by the slight contact he'd had with Saber, and even Sakura had been touched by the tentative bond she'd shared with Rider. Both of them had been affected, but neither of them had been as close to their Servants as Illyasviel had been to hers. She'd summoned hers early, she'd supported him for months without the Grail to help her, she'd grown to know him, to trust him, to believe in him. Her bond with him had run deep.
And he had been Berserker.
Illya couldn't speak, she couldn't shout, and she couldn't voice her thoughts, but even so she let loose with a wordless soundless release of emotion as she began her assault upon the force that held her. Already reeling from whatever it was that had rent it apart the crushing and malevolent presence seemed to recoil in the face of her fury as she lashed out with every bit of the power she could bring to bear. Immediately it retaliated, the crushing force upon her growing, even as the whispers that had tormented her grew into wails trying to pierce through her mind.
Had she a voice it was an even bet as to whether she would have roared in defiance or laughed in disgust!
The snowy haired girl did not relent, she didn't retreat, she didn't falter. Instead she took the attack and continued her own, stubbornly refusing to relinquish the ground she had taken in this struggle. Again, the pressure upon her increased, the force no longer just pressing down upon her, now it was eating away at her, burning her, trying to tear her apart. She felt a surge of angry pride as she realized that her tormentor was no longer trying to subvert her, but instead they were trying to break her, shatter her mind and identity into shards that could then be consumed. It was a horrible fate, but the fact that they were trying it upon her meant that they no longer thought they could subvert her.
If they were trying to kill her then it meant that she'd done something that was forcing them to change plans, or so she hoped.
She hoped that it meant she had hurt them.
Others might have recoiled then, tried to take a defensive posture so that they could endure until another opening presented itself. Not Illya though, she was the Master of Heracles, and that meant that she had a bit of Berserker in her own personality.
So, she attacked!
She didn't relent, she just tore at the grip that she had, every bit of prana she could manage obeying her will as she burnt at the essence of her captor. Fire, claws, swords, teeth, her magic flicked from one to the next as swiftly as her mental representation changed. The attack upon her continued, but she refused to back down, not even as the pain continued to mount.
-Die! Wither away to nothing! Break and crumble and fall into dust! Be nothing! Are nothing! Worth nothing! Nothing to anyone! Nothing to him! Left here with me! Left to face me on your own! All alone! All alone! All alo-nnnnyyyyaaahahhhhh!-
The taunting voice had returned, this time not trying to demoralize her, but rather to scream at her as the force persisted in crushing down on her. She could feel her . . . self start to crack under the pressure, feel tiny bits of her mind begin to micro-fracture under the onslaught she was enduring. Then there was another golden cut, and the words dissolved into an incoherent shriek.
Had she lips then Illya's smile might have borne a considerable resemblance to a shark that had just tasted blood in the water.
This wasn't going to be easy, but it looked like she wasn't alone in this fight.
Her magic once more tore into her tormentor and she threw herself into the fray,
The scream that Ahriman let loose as the golden form of the Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi cut into her for the last time could not possibly be mistaken for something that a human throat could have made. He actually felt a small trickle of blood run down his neck from his right ear, but he paid it no mind.
Instead his focus was upon the sword that he'd rammed into the possessed girl's heart. In his grip the sword jerked about like a freshly landed fish, something inside the girl it impaled throwing it about, trying to drag it from his hands. He held on though, refusing to let go as he tried to drive it in deeper.
He was cutting the god's divinity, of that he was certain. He could feel the edge of his weapon scraping across something that was neither flesh nor bone. His sword wasn't severing the physical body; rather it was cutting into the power that dwelled within it.
"Come on, come on!" He bit out through gritted teeth.
He could feel the conflict between his Authority and the divine power of his foe, he could feel the golden blade cutting at it. There was resistance, but it was happening, he knew that the divinity would sever, it was inevitable!
The problem was that his enemy refused to give even an inch; she fought every step of the way, making the golden sword fight for every wound it inflicted. There was no chance that she would fight it off, the nature of their respective Authorities ensured that, but even so she was dragging this out in a way no other god had ever managed. At first he hadn't understood why she was doing it, but then he'd remembered what she'd said earlier, about how the more the fight wore on the more Illya-chan would suffer. So he knew he had to end this as fast as he could.
But Ahriman was not making this easy.
Illya-chan's body wailed to the heavens like a damned soul, her limbs spread out and spasming as though some cruel tormentor was running high voltage through her. Those unnatural eyes had rolled back in her skull until all that could be seen was blackness, and flecks of bloody foam were forming at the corners of her mouth. He had to end this fast or something was going to break, and he feared that for all her magic and clear will the mortal girl was going to be the weak link in this battle between gods and god slayers.
"And I shall seize victory forevermore, because I am strong, because I am noble, and because I am valiant!"
The words came out of his as he instinctively sought to drive up his magical energy and reinforce the flagging Authority in his hands. Ahriman's scream grew higher, a shriek that might well have shattered glass had there been any nearby. He supposed the shriek might have been justified, given that he was twisting the blade in her as savagely as he could. Had the blade been normal and she merely mortal then her heart would have been reduced to little more than a twisted and shredded mess.
"NONONONONOOONNNOOOMINENENEMINNNEEEEE! YYOOUUWERRREEdonelostbroken! Thhiisssmineminenotyoursnotyoursnotnotnot! Notnot notnononoooonnnnnoooooOoOOOOOO!"
The last distorted scream came out as an unintelligible wail that seemed to claw its way up into the darkening sky! Godou could feel the divine power straining, like a length of rubber that had been pulled so taut that it was on the verge of snapping, but was holding on. This was the last bit of resistance, the last obstacle to overcome.
The seventh Campione pushed the sword in further, the tip of it now protruding past Illya's back as it ran her through. It just needed to be a little more, just a little more. But even though Ahriman's Authority was strained to the limit, the same could be said of his own. The Warrior Authority was never meant to be prolonged like this. Perhaps Verethragna himself could have done it recreating the sword again and again, reforging it as it lost its edge, but such an option was not available to Godou. By all rights the sword should be useless if not broken entirely, but he'd managed to give it new life, just maybe not enough.
He was so close, he could practically taste it! Ahriman's divine nature was straining to the breaking point; all that was needed was a single tiny nudge, just a sliver of power, just a spark to tip the balance. That was all, that was all he needed, but he just couldn't muster it up.
The young Kusanagi was far from exhausted, despite the battles he had faced. The divine beast had been troublesome, but not taxing, and his fight so far with Ahriman had been intense, but not draining upon his reserves. It was the Authority that was exhausted, so spent that even injecting it with the magic he had raised wasn't enough. They were balanced, his sword cleaving through the Authority, but Ahriman's divinity refusing to sever. The victor would be the one whose strength ran out first, and the King of Disaster had a sinking feeling that the dark god's malice could outlast his flagging blade.
Something had to change if he was going to manage this.
Godou was taken by surprise when the girl suddenly went completely still. Before she had been spasming upon his sword, her limbs not responding to her mental commands. Her arms had fallen at her sides, and her legs had given out under her. Had she not been held up by the very blade that had run her through she would most likely have collapsed to her knees. Even so her arms and legs had twitched and jerked, even her head had lolled around madly as the god had fought to keep her divinity intact.
Now though, now it was almost as though she had become a statue. She wasn't moving, she didn't even seem to be breathing, she just stood there, her every muscle locked up tight and holding her immobile. For a moment he feared that something had gone wrong, that somehow he had hurt the very girl he was trying to save. Then he heard something. It began low, at the very edge of his hearing, but it quickly grew.
". . .-ut, g-t o-t, get out, Get Out, GET OUT, GET OUUUTTT!"
The voice was not the strange multi-disharmonic mess that Ahriman had been speaking in. Instead it was something more familiar, someone that he'd heard before, though he'd never heard it laced with so much fury before.
"GET OUT OF ME!"
At that final shout the world exploded into a mess of black, bruise-like purple, and blood red. The force of the sudden eruption was enough to send Godou staggering back, his grip upon the transformed Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi lost due to the startling burst of power. A bit of loose gravel shifted underfoot, and he fell back, landing on his butt as he stared at the dust cloud that had been thrown up by the sudden release of force.
With the nearest street lamp having gone on the fritz, flickering on and off, it was hard to see through it, but he was sure that he could see a small figure lying on the ground. The sight was enough to galvanize the young Kusanagi, and he quickly got to his feet and dashed over to her. It was only as he took a knee beside Illya-chan's form that it occurred to him that this might not be the brightest idea. If Ahriman was still in control of her . . . His hand tried to grasp his divine sword, but the weapon was absent. He could feel it across the battleground, stunned but ready to serve as soon as he could retrieve it, but not here, not in his grasp. The girl coughed and sat up, and Godou was aware that if the fight resumed then he'd been in a bad spot.
"Uuhhh . . . Godou-san?"
Well, she wasn't screaming for his blood or soul, that was a hopeful sign at least.
"There . . . there were voices, whispers," Her face took on a decidedly vicious smile. "I made them be quiet!"
Oh yes, this was definitely the same creepy girl that he was familiar with. With surprising swiftness she shook her head and got to her feet.
"What was that? Where am I? Where's Onii-chan? Why are you here?"
The questions came quickly, more demands than queries. It was a reminder that this was a girl that wasn't afraid of him; despite the power he possessed dwarfing hers. Oh, she could be polite and courteous, but afraid? No, not that.
"Well . . ."
How was he going to explain all this? Her kidnapping, her possession, her hurting her brother, none of it was going to be easy for her. However, as he opened his mouth to speak the sound of footsteps echoed through the ruined park. The footsteps were odd, as though the feet that made them were not soled in rubber, leather or wood, but were instead of metal. He could hear the clinking as stone met the feet and encountered metal there.
"I did not expect this."
The voice was a paradoxical mixture of contrasts. On the one hand it was composed of discordant and alien harmonics that managed to make Godou's head ache just from hearing them. On the other hand the words were spoken with an almost casual tone to them, as though this was a conversation being held over the table of a coffee shop. Out of the darkness and dust emerged a new figure, a boy not much older than Illya-chan, but there was no mistaking him for any sort of mortal.
The darkness around him seemed to seethe on its own, moving independently of the few sources of light that still remained. His skin was as pale and sallow as that of a corpse, but blackened veins stood out beneath its surface serving to further accentuate his inhumanity. Even his hair seemed to be tainted by the blackness, hanging around his head like a dark curtain of unwashed and decaying threads. Worst of all though were his eyes! Where whites, irises and pupils should have been there was only blackness, a blackness so deep and absolute that even a glimpse of them was enough to make Godou's head spin slightly as though he were suffering from vertigo.
The figure wore no clothes, but was instead clad in the very shadows that swirled around him, or clung to his body like parasites. It almost looked as though he were wearing a dark robe, one that ran down to the ground until it seemed to merge with it.
"I thought that I would only find the thief, that he would be the only one able to arouse my ire enough to bestir me."
The small figure stopped at the edge of the ruined area, remaining upon the undamaged concrete as he stared at them
"How could I hate others as much? He was the one to steal from me, to take the curses, to treat them as his, to take their screams from me. How could any others possibly equal the insult heaped upon me by your thieving brother, Illyasviel?"
At his side Godou felt Illya-chan tense, and he could understand why. Being addressed like that, by name, that meant that the god before them no longer saw her as just another mortal, just another useful piece to be used and then discarded. Instead she was now a target, an object of ire and a recipient of wrath. This was not an enviable position, because it was one that very few mortals ever survived.
"But you, Illyasviel, you and this bastard child of Pandora, you have mutilated my divinity, defied me in the halls of your mind, spat in my face when I demanded your submission. Tell me, DO YOU THINK THAT I WOULD BE WILLING TO ACCEPT THAT!"
The last few words weren't spoken, they were roared. Beneath him the unbroken concrete shattered into gravel, the nearby grass died, shrivelled and then burst into small flames. The seventh Campione actually felt the urge to flee welling up in him, it was controllable, easily crushed, but it was there. Never had he actually felt the urge to run from a god, not since having become a devil King, but now he could feel a small part of him screaming to run, to get away from the figure before him. Even as he ruthlessly buried it he noticed that Illya-chan was actually shivering, her arms wrapped around herself in an attempt to control it. But even so she was still glaring at the figure of Ahriman, and the venom in her eyes had not lessened in the least.
"I am going to kill this impudent God Slayer!" The child-like figure declared, his voice no longer a roar having fallen to a savage growl. "I am going to drown him in curses until the flesh melts from his bones and his soul screams for mercy. Then I am going to kill you, Illyasviel, and you shall know such torment that the attentions of your family shall seem like gentle caresses by comparison!"
What?! Godou felt his eyes widen in surprise at that, then narrow in anger. Illya-chan had been hurt by her family? Was that why she and her brother were so . . . guarded about their past? Were they trying to escape an abusive family? No, that didn't make any sense, Shirou was a Campione, what did he have to fear from anyone? On the other hand, who could hurt you more than those closest to you?
All of these thoughts flashed through his mind in an instant, then he shoved them to the back of his thoughts as he focused back upon the present.
Okay, Illya-chan was free, that was definitely a step in the right direction. Now, the next order of business was to get her safely out of the area.
"Illya-chan, are you hurt? Can you run?"
The show haired girl didn't respond in words, but she did get to her feet. Her legs were a bit unsteady, but they firmed quickly, and Godou thought that he might have felt a thrum of power coming from her. Was she using magic? If so then good, she'd be able to get herself out of here faster that way.
"I'm going to fight Ahriman; you get out of here while he's engaged with me. Yuri's just outside the park, talk to her and she can bring you up to date on what's going on."
The child wrapped in shadows had ceased his advance and was just staring at them with those all consuming black eyes. The seventh Campione wasn't sure why he was giving them time, but he wasn't complaining. As things stood Illya-chan was more of a weakness than anything else at the moment, if a fight did break out then he'd have to devote much of his attention to keeping her safe rather than fighting the Heretic God. If he could get her out of the line of fire then he'd be able to act far more freely.
In response to his words his fellow King's sibling nodded and stepped away. Then she paused and looked back at him.
"Godou-san," she said her voice oddly formal given the situation. "I'm grateful for your aid in saving me, but don't think that I'm going to be joining your harem after this!"
Some of his shock at that must have shown on his face, but Illya-chan apparently misinterpreted it.
"I know that it is customary for the girls that you save to fall in love with you, but my heart already belongs to Onii-chan, I hope that this won't keep us from being friends though."
With that she nodded her head in goodbye, then took off at speeds that would have made any professional athlete jealous. Godou just blinked at her retreating form, still having trouble getting his head around what had just happened. Was that really how she saw him? Even now? What kind of insatiable predator did she think he was? Anyway, she was too young for him; he wasn't into lolis, certainly not scary ones.
. . . And where was Athena these days? He hadn't seen her since she left a few weeks ago.
All of that went through his mind in only a few seconds, then he turned back to face Ahriman. He could worry about his reputation later; the current situation was far more pressing.
"She may run, I have her scent, she can be found at any point that I so choose." The child-like god's voice dripped like honey mixed with battery acid. "It would hardly do for her to be caught in the midst of our battle, that would be entirely too swift a fate for her. After I have taken my debt from you I shall be equally careful in extracting the pain that she owes me. Perhaps I shall keep something for her adopted brother to see."
Well, it wasn't the smart decision, but since it worked to his favour Godou wasn't going to complain. This was probably going to be the only time that facing a vicious, cruel, and possibly insane, foe would work in his favour.
Alright, first things first. Where was his sword?
Shirou took a deep breath as Snow touched down about a street's length away from his destination. He did his best to keep his mind focused, but he couldn't help but feel his thoughts drifting towards Illya, fear and trepidation scratching at his heart as they tried to find a way in. with a small grimace he shoved them down, unwilling to let them interfere with what he had to do. He'd entrusted her to Godou, and it was the best decision he could have made at the time, that was the simple truth of the matter.
Still, that didn't mean that some small part of him didn't want to run back and make sure that Illya was alright. Always he felt the edges of his thoughts trying to circle circling back to that, before he dragged them back onto the matter at hand.
The King of Steel shook his head and stared down at the tablet. On it the line pointing towards the court before him lit up, leaving no doubt as to where he was meant to go.
The location was a large courtyard formed by three large apartment complexes forming three sides of a box. It was some distance off, but with basic Reinforcement to his eyes he was able to make out the details without too much trouble. The area between them was a small park, with large flower beds, a few trees and a large water fountain. The buildings were pretty large, each at least eight stories tall and a good couple hundred meters long. If Shirou had to make a guess he would have thought that these were pretty upscale apartments, the sort that were each comfortably large and could easily house a small family. In fact, he wouldn't be all that surprised if there were also small gardens set up on the roofs, maybe even some picnic tables or sun chairs. These were good homes, the kinds of places that young city couples worked to get to so that they could know they were doing well in life.
So why were they empty?
The apartments should have been full. Even from where he was he could tell that they were lived in; he could see little personal decorations in the windows, like hanging charms, individualized curtains, or ornaments on the window sills. Even if it was late at night there should have been some response, especially given the tumult that the city found itself in. So why weren't there any lights turning on and off as people moved around? Why weren't there any residents poking their heads out of windows to see what was going on? Why was it so quiet? So . . . dead? The apartments had a feeling of a graveyard, not a living complex.
Beneath him the white pegasus snorted and pawed at the ground, his eyes darting from one building to the next with clear agitation. The divine steed was clearly nervous, but his wings were flared and ready, a combat stance that Shirou had grown familiar with. Yes, his mount was nervous, but he was still ready to fight if he needed to.
The thought was somewhat calming, just knowing that someone had his back was enough to take a bit of the edge off the situation's strangeness.
Alright, there didn't seem to be anyone here, and to the best of his knowledge this wasn't an area that had been affected by the monsters that had been set loose upon the city. There didn't seem to be any overt damage to the area, nor any signs of struggle or violence. So, that meant the residents were either all dead in their rooms, had evacuated the buildings for some reason, or . . . they were still there, in their rooms, but unmoving, unacting for some reason.
Any one of them was a possibility, especially when dealing with a deity like Odysseus. Shirou had done his best to research the heroic god, but there was a great deal of uncertainty as to his genuine origins. Scholars of the magical world agreed that he was a foreign god that had been accepted into the Greek mythology as a hero in much the same way that Mithras had, but aside from that there was very little agreement. Some thought he was of African origin, while others postulated that he was a deity that had travelled west from Asia, but the simple fact was that nobody knew for sure. Consequently, there was no way to be certain, for all he knew every resident of the surrounding buildings had been transfigured into mice.
He shifted his weight about on Snow's back, trying to position himself more stably upon his mounts back in preparation for his approach. But when he did so a throbbing pain ran through his bones. It wasn't as bad as Ahriman's last torturous attack, but it still hurt enough to make him pause, his eyes briefly squeezing shut as he did his best to fight it down.
Alright, as things stood the situation wasn't as good as he'd have preferred it to be, but he could deal with it. Sure, that had hurt, and if it happened during the battle then it could be difficult, but he'd overcome worse in the past.
And really, was it even an option to try falling back to recover? Odysseus was the architect of this whole mess, from recruiting Circe and Ahriman, to kidnapping Illya, to unleashing the other monsters as diversions this night, all of it came back to the hero god. He might not have been the one to do the deeds, but he had been the one to set the wheels in motion, he had been the one to steer the boat.
If Shirou were deny this fight then what was the most likely outcome? This was the second time Odysseus had come after him, what was to keep him from doing it again? Would he recruit even more Heretic Gods? There just wasn't any good answer to the situation. He had to do his best to bring him down here and now, there wasn't any other-
With a shake of his head he dismissed such thoughts. There was no point in considering that subject, there was going to be a fight, of that there was no doubt. It was better to just accept that and move on, to start thinking about how to win rather than letting doubt hold him back!
Alright, the first thing that was clear was that this was some sort of ambush. Odysseus had chosen this spot, he'd waited here while the rest of the chaos he'd unleashed was taking place, so there was no chance that such a choice had been made at random. When they'd last fought it had been made clear that the Heretic God was not a direct fighter. As with his legend, guile and cunning were his strengths, rather than pure might. If this was going to be a fight, then it wasn't going to be a fair one.
Not that it was, even if Odysseus did nothing, Shirou was already tired and hurt, while the god was fresh and on a battleground of his choosing. Was that it? Was the God Slayer overthinking it? Might that be all there was to the plan, let him expend his 'ammunition' on Ahriman, then when he faced the Travelling God he'd be unable to bring his full power to bear? It was a plan with the virtue of simplicity, the less complex it was the less chance there was for something to go wrong, but Shirou couldn't believe that that was it, there had to be more, and the thought was not filling him with warm and happy sensations.
Alright, as far as he could see there were three approaches he could take. The first was to arrive on Snow's back as fast as he could, this would make him an obvious target, but maybe the winged horse's speed would be enough to dodge the initial attack and let Shirou spot where Odysseus would be acting from. From there he'd have the advantage, at least in theory, being able to rain attacks down on an enemy from an elevated and fastmoving position. Granted, he wouldn't have any cover, but he could put trust in his mount's speed and agility.
His second option was to dismount Snow once more and enter the area on foot. He'd likewise be visible, but that would be what he'd be aiming for, his main intent would be to draw Odysseus into direct combat as quickly as possible by using himself as bait. This was a riskier plan, almost suicidally so, since it placed him in a potentially very vulnerable position, but if it also meant that he'd be able to control from which general direction the attack might come from. In a way it was an extension of Archer's fighting style, leave an opening that your foe will aim for so that you'll know where to block it. It all hinged on whether or not he could use either an Authority or a Traced Noble Phantasm to deal with his foe's opening move, a gamble, a large one.
The third possibility was also to come in on foot, but to employ stealth rather than brashness. Archer might not have possessed the Presence Concealment skill, but he had been surprisingly good at sneaking around when it had suited him, enough so to get the drop on several enemies when he wanted to. Shirou had those skills now, as well as plenty of memories of his life when he'd snuck about on many a perilous battlefield. If he was good enough then Shirou could use those skills to sneak through whatever ambush was planned, but doing so was risky in the extreme.
Drawing Snow into a climb Shirou guided his mount to fly above the buildings, passing over them to see if there would be any reaction. This far away if Odysseus was there and took a shot then even with the speed of a divine weapon the pegasus was swift enough to dodge if needed.
But there was no attack, no attempt to snipe them out of the air, instead the building beneath them remained as still and silent as it had before. Were it not for the lights shining from the windows and street lamps then it would have felt dead. No hints of where the Heretic God was, no hints of how the ambush would play out.
The realization came to him that he was going to have to be the one to make the first move. Odysseus had obviously set this up as a trap, and he knew Shirou was going to have to be the one to come to him as he had no choice in the matter. As such he was in a position to react to whatever the King of Steel had planned, all from a concealed and prepared location. It might not be an overwhelming advantage, but it was a significant one, and not one that Shirou was too eager to allow.
The words were muttered in a low voice, but they dripped with frustration and venom. Right there he made his decision, no more overthinking, no more hesitating, time to get this done. The link between him and Snow thrummed for a moment, then in response to his rider's wishes the winged horse plummeted in a dive, wings beating at the air to propel both mount and rider faster than mere gravity would have permitted.
This was Shirou's choice, speed, boldness, and brashness. It might not be the most sophisticated approach, but he couldn't afford to try anything else. A more measured attempt at entry would leave him too vulnerable, while any attempt at stealth, even if augmented with the use of a Traced Noble Phantasm, was too uncertain, given that he was still largely ignorant of Odysseus's abilities. Pure speed though, that might give him the edge he needed!
The first arrow came faster than any bullet, but it still missed the speeding pegasus and his rider by almost a metre. Snow was not simply diving in a straight line though, instead the winged steed was taking an uneven zigzag path in response to Shirou's mental commands. Any modern flight machine attempting similar moves would have been torn apart, any mortal rider would have been hurled from his back or broken by the cruel forces of momentum, but neither mount or rider were such simple beings. The arrows were fast and powerful easily as deadly as modern anti-aircraft weapons, but they where not Authorities, not empowered as a true divine attack might be. This was simply the first volley, an attempt to place Shirou in a disadvantageous position.
Despite the situation the eighth Campione couldn't help but feel a smile touch his lips at the thought that crossed his mind. In a battle between those with Authorities the trick was who could counter who the most times, and who could bring out a power that the other could not survive. Setting Shirou up against Ahriman hadn't simply been a plan to kill him or just weaken him, the young Emiya would have been willing to bet good money that it had also been meant to make him exhaust his expendable Authorities as well. This attack was the same, more aimed at trying to force him to exhaust an Authority than it was meant to actually injure or kill, though either outcome was also acceptable, he supposed.
It could work too. If Shirou was less cautious then he might have jumped from Snow's back, trusting to his Dragon Slaying Hero to ensure he landed safely, and then used Snow's sacrifice attack upon the spot the arrows seemed to come from. However, the King of Steel had no doubt that Odysseus was nowhere near so simple a target. Either he was somehow in another spot and making it seem as though he was firing from there, or he had some means to escape virtually any retaliation that might come his way. Either way, such an attempt would be a waste of Snow, as it was far better to keep him as a means of escape, or as a last ditch attack.
One, two, three arrows dodged, but the last one had been far too close. If Snow hadn't jinked to the side at the last instant it would have done more than sever a few minor feathers from his wing. Still, they were close enough now, time for the fun bit!
Even as he thought that last part Shirou wondered if all those anime Illya insisted he watch with her had somehow corrupted him. At just what point in his life had jumping off a flying divine steed travelling at ludicrous speeds while being shot at by an enemy god become 'fun'?!
. . . He really wanted to go home and just cook for a bit, just to try and feel as though he wasn't failing miserably at being a 'normal' human being by almost any stretch of the imagination.
Then there was no time for even background idle thoughts, instead he was out of the saddle, careening to the ground like a cannonball! Once again the instincts and skills gained from his future self took over, his body curling into a roll that absorbed the impact and took him beside the outer corner of one of the apartment blocks. Immediately he was moving again, ducking behind the nearest of the large concrete flowerbeds. An arrow struck at the spot where he'd been just a moment before, the length of wood and metal burying more than a foot into the pavement. Shirou only spared it a quick glance though, taking note of the way that it pointed as a suggestion of where his enemy was shooting from, then he was moving again in a crouching run. It might not be very dignified, but it was quick.
The flowerbeds were set up in large 'L' shapes, several interlocking to form paths for people to walk. He imagined that when the plants in them were flowering it would make for quite the sight in the sunshine, but right now wasn't the time to be appreciating it. Instead he was more pleased by the fact that their setup made for a sort of mini-maze that he could duck behind. Even better, it gave him a number of options as to where to go, meaning it would be that much harder for the shooter to track him.
"Hiding, King Shirou? I would have expected more from you!"
The shots paused as the voice echoed across the otherwise silent court. Shirou knew that voice, even if the only time he'd heard it had been when it was speaking ancient Greek.
"Attacking from the shadows again? It's about all I was expecting from you, Odysseus!"
Even as he spoke Shirou was on the move once more, once again grateful for the extra speed and strength afforded to him by his Authorities. Behind him bricks and concrete shattered as an arrow aimed at where his voice had come from struck home, but the God Slayer was already well away. Despite it being dark, that time he had been able to see where the shot came from, and a quick inspection of the tablet showed that his quarry hadn't moved after loosing his shot.
He was standing on one of the few balconies that overlooked the court, probably belonging to one of the pricier apartments. It was only on the second floor, so Shirou could look up at it without having to crane his head overmuch. The Heretic God looked much as he had when they had faced on the island, his dark hair and eyes remained the same, as did the Grecian armour he wore. However, there were differences, small details that stood out now that he knew to look for them.
His beard and hair had an uncut and unkempt look to them, his armour was spotted with bits of rust, worst of all were his eyes, eyes that Shirou could see quite clearly even from this far away. They were a bit too wide, a bit too bright, a bit too intense. Archer had seen eyes like those before, and they normally belonged to the sorts of magi that didn't have any trouble with trying to cut their way to the root through the bodies of children. Those were the eyes of someone that wanted something, and would be fine with seeing the world burn if it let them gain what they wanted.
And they were currently the eyes of a god. There was no way this could end well.
"I simply needed you here, King Shirou. Your death can come in any form, so long as it is at my hands. So long as I can gain the Key to the Gate then what care I how it is taken?"
Another arrow came whistling at Shirou, but he'd already moved out of the way. Still, something about the travelling god's words wasn't adding up. Normally the All Wealthy King wouldn't have been quite so talkative in a fight, but Odysseus seemed to have no trouble answering, so maybe he could exploit that. It was a small chance, but perhaps he could get his enemy to make a mistake if he was too busy talking.
"If you wanted to be the one to kill me then why did you send Ahriman after me? What if he'd killed me?!"
Again, he moved as he asked the question, making sure not to stay in place long enough for his voice to give his location away. But as he did so he couldn't keep a wince of remembered pain from his face at the mention of Ahriman. Even though he was forcing himself to move, even though he was trying to fight through it, the memory of the pain that the evil god had inflicted upon him, it still managed to make him flinch.
"I knew that he'd never be able to kill you," Odysseus' voice rang out across the court, even as another arrow was loosed. "A mad dog such as he is not a foe that can bring down one of your mettle!"
Personally, Shirou disagreed. Ahriman had come closer to killing him than just about any foe he'd fought since coming to this world, save maybe for Mordred. But at least against the Knight of Treachery he'd been able to force himself to move with the power of Arondight. Against Ahriman there'd been nothing he could do, nothing! Had Godou not arrived . . . the King of Steel wasn't sure which would have broken first, his body or his mind.
"But even a mad dog can serve a master unknowingly, especially if the master simply needs them to do what they would do anyway."
Shirou had reached the end of the cover available to him, but that was alright. The power of his Dragon Slaying Hero Authority pumped through his veins, and he was sure he could make it across the short open area without being hit. From there he could close in on his foe and bring the battle into melee range, an area that he'd have an advantage in, if his memories of the battle upon the island served him well. The god was dangerous, but without the element of surprise Shirou was sure that he could take him if he got close enough.
Again his brows knit as a frown touched his face.
Of course, there was the issue that he could no longer summon or Trace either Arondight or Excalibur, though he still didn't know why, but he had plenty of other Noble Phantasms to draw upon, though few were of comparable quality.
A plan started to form in his mind. The first thing he needed to do was close with his enemy, and that was going to be the hard part. Odysseus was deadly at range, it was right there at the end of his legend. But . . . yes, that would do. Internally Shirou smiled as he decided on the stone axe-sword of Heracles. Massive and solid as the stone weapon was it could serve as both shield and sword, sheltering him from his enemy's arrows, then cutting him down when he was close enough. Nine Life Blade Works probably wouldn't be able to completely break through his immortality, but not even a god could take an attack like that without receiving some damage.
"I was aware that Circe would betray me! I knew that she would side with you God Slayers in search of protection. And I knew she would send the Seventh King to aid you against Ahriman. The only variable was how much damage the mad dog would inflict before you were relieved of the role of his victim! I knew that it would happen! I knew it!"
Internally Shirou resisted the urge to roll his eyes as he listened to the travelling god rant. Yes, Godou had said that Circe had told him Odysseus had gone insane, but he hadn't been expecting this. Upon the island the Heretic God had struck from concealment, he hadn't wasted time on words; he hadn't squandered advantages on theatrics. Instead his every move had been planned and cunning, leading Shirou about in battle without giving him a target, slowly poisoning him so he wouldn't notice until it was too late. Granted, Shirou had managed to turn the tables on him, but that had been due to him pushing himself into a near frenzy after stabbing himself in order to deal with the poison, not something that Odysseus could have anticipated.
This . . . this self-aggrandizing ranting, it was the sort of thing he'd have expected from some power drunk magus that was convinced of their own invincibility, not the hero that had brought Troy down through cunning and trickery where the skill and might of Achilles or Ajax had failed.
Well, he shouldn't complain. If an enemy wished to make themselves less dangerous by drowning in their ego then who was he to deny them? Shirou shook his head, that had felt entirely too much like an 'EMIYA' thought for his taste. Best to get this finished as soon as he could so that he could provide the others with reinforcements.
Even as he moved to prepare his charge he frowned at those last thoughts. Now that was bordering on arrogance of his own. Yes, Odysseus might be insane, but he was still a god. Taking him lightly was the best way to throw any advantage his insanity provided into the wind. No, Shirou had to be as serious as he could be; he had to treat this as a true life or death battle.
Alright, Trace O-
Shirou collapsed to the ground as his Magic Circuits felt as though they were trying to burn their way out of him! The pain was immense, but it wasn't responsible for the loss of control, rather it was as though his muscles no longer heeded even the befuddled commands of his momentarily stunned mind. He was vaguely aware that he wasn't exposed, not yet, but he couldn't afford to remain immobile for long. All the Heretic God needed to do was move slightly to the side and then he'd have an almost clear line of fire at the prone God Slayer.
The next moment Odysseus was moving, taking a giant leap off the balcony he'd been on to land in the middle of the court. Ironically the position he had taken meant that Shirou's prone form was now obscured by both shrubbery and a low brick wall. It was a stroke of luck, but it couldn't last for long.
All those thoughts floated through his mind as though they were someone else's thoughts. Instead his own thought process was obscured by the pain that had seared through him as he'd tried to Trace the weapons he needed. They were there, waiting for him in Unlimited Blade Works, but his Magic Circuits . . . Even as his limbs twitched as he struggled to regain control Shirou's eyes widened as something slipped into place. Ahriman, that attack they'd poured into him, he'd known that it had made his Circuits burn with pain, but had it done more? He knew that the curse Angra Mainyu had inflicted upon his adoptive father had eaten away at his Magic Circuits even as it had consumed his vitality, and it had only taken as long as it had to kill him because it was meant to be a slow and painful process. He knew Ahriman could create miasma almost identical to the black mud of the corrupted Holy Grail, so . . .
Internally thee King of Steel swore as he tried to assess the damage. He'd never been any good at internal assessment, and with his magecraft largely unavailable he wasn't even able to use that small amount of talent. He'd need the aid of someone more skilled than him to examine him later, Illya or Guinevere, but that was only if he could survive the next few minutes.
Once again, it was his Campione vitality that saved him. A normal magus, even one as talented as Rin, would have been incapacitated for hours, the nerve damage to the Circuits carrying over to their more mundane nervous system, but Shirou's body was adapted to contain and channel the immense forces of divine Authorities. His Circuits were tougher, able to bear power that would have incinerated lesser channels, and though they were wounded, even crippled, they were not broken, meaning that they would recover in time. How long was the question, but given how much trying to Trace had hurt him he didn't think it would be any time soon.
And that meant that his principle ability, the one almost all of his fighting style was based around, was not useable!
Shirou's hands clenched into fists as he finally managed to roll over onto his stomach. Alright, this was just another battle, just like the ones that he'd fought in so many places and against so many foes. A weapon was unusable, fine, he'd just discard it and move on to another. If the weapon had value, or could be repaired, then he could come back for it later, but for now it was a burden, so it was dropped.
Emiya Shirou, the King of Steel, had never faced such a situation, but he had the memories of one who had. Those lessons had been learnt, and he knew how to use them.
Alright, the first thing that he needed was to move. The only thing that had so far kept Odysseus from killing him was blind luck, and there was no way that could last much longer. Slowly, painfully, the eighth Campione forced his limbs to unclench, to relax and move. The pain he'd endured as his Magic Circuits misfired had locked him up as though he'd been electrocuted, and had he lacked the strengthened body and vitality of a God Slayer he'd have been suffering from torn muscles or even broken bones.
His legs weren't cooperating, the muscles feeling limp, unresponsive to the point of uselessness. He could still feel his toes though, and he was sure that if he could just buy some time then he'd be able to get them working again. Okay, legs weren't an option right now, how about his arms?
Yes! They ached in a way he hadn't experienced since becoming a Campione, but they were responding. Grabbing the corner of the wall near to him Shirou dragged himself along, doing his best to ignore the protesting pain that ran through his limbs as he forced them to move.
"I knew that your Steel would be too strong for me to face directly." Odysseus's voice echoed across the court, now sounding far more controlled and rational than it had a few moments before. "I saw upon that island, its strength, its power. I knew that if you were ever to come to fully control it then your strength would be beyond any that I could bring to bear against you."
He moved again, carefully stepping to the side as he tried to locate his prey. For his part Shirou slowly dragged himself to the side, making sure to keep the edge of the building between them as he struggled to regain his freedom of movement.
"But you haven't reached it yet, have you? You have your Steel, and it is fine, fit for the hands of even a king among the gods. But your Strongest Steel, that is not yet within your grip."
As though to emphasise the words of the Heretic God the King of Steel felt another lance of pain shoot through his Magic Circuits, and it took an effort of will to keep himself from voicing his pain. Instead he clenched his teeth and struggled on.
"That's why none of this mattered. It doesn't matter that Ahriman failed to kill you. It matters not that Circe chose to betray me! It is unimportant whether or not your fellow King is able to slay my ally! All that matters is the here and now, this battle between us!"
Gritting his teeth Shirou forced his mind away from the pain his magecraft was causing him and instead focused upon the feeling of his most used Authority. Yes, he'd lost his grip upon it before, the pain in his Circuits driving it from his control, but now Dragon Slaying Hero was there, like a loyal a steed awaiting its rider. Taking a deep breathe the King of Steel braced himself and spoke the spell words as quietly as he could manage.
"To seize victory from the jaws of defeat, to stand in the face of terror and dread! I am the hero that would face the nightmares of the world and emerge triumphant!"
It wasn't the 'true' chant of the Authority, but it served to martial the divine power, and it was shorter, more easily invoked. Even as he spoke the words he could feel the power of Steel, both warm and cool at once, flowing through his body. The divine power wasn't meant to heal, but by its very nature it gave him the strength he needed to overcome his weakness. His legs firmed beneath him, letting him scramble to his feet. It wasn't perfect, he still felt weak, but he was getting stronger by the second, the Authority and his enhanced vitality working together to patch him up.
"All that matters is my freedom!"
Shirou must have made a mistake, because in the next moment an arrow was driving through the air barely a centimetre in front of his nose. Had Odysseus aimed just a bit to the right then the shaft would have gone straight through his brain.
"There you are!"
There was no more time to think, all Shirou could do was move as fast as he could!
Under other circumstances he'd have thrown himself forward, turned the fall into a roll and come up running. The move was a simple one, but one that EMIYA had taken the time to gain proficiency in. It had the advantage of letting you dodge and go into a full sprint at the same time, a trick that could often be invaluable on the battlefield. Right now though, the best he could manage was a sort of energetic forward stumble, more of a controlled collapse really, with him getting his feet under him just in time to let him keep moving.
Another arrow cut through the night, piercing the brick wall and almost impaling his shoulder.
This was not a good situation, not good at all! Since getting to this new world his ability to Trace Noble Phantasms had been his edge, the ability that had given him an advantage in virtually any circumstance he found himself in. With his magecraft currently beyond his reach he was missing a vital part of almost all the skills he could use to go beyond himself. No Tracing, no Reinforcement, no faked skills. The only ones he could access were the ones in the weapon that he still held. Kanshou was a strong blade, but on its own it was only of middling power, and he'd shattered enough versions of it in the past to know its limits. The skills it harboured would serve him well, but he wasn't sure they'd be enough.
Damn it! As he forced himself to move faster Shirou wondered if Odysseus realized just how much he'd be hamstringing his enemy by letting Ahriman mess with his Magic Circuits, or if the travelling god had simply been lucky. Regardless, the battle had just swung heavily in the Heretic God's favour. The simple fact was that to be at his deadliest Emiya Shirou needed to have access to the vast stores of weapons within his Reality Marble, and right now that was no longer an option.
Yet another arrow came at him, and this time he wasn't quite fast enough to dodge it, at least not completely. The shaft grazed his ribs, deflected by the bones and unable to penetrate deeply, but still leaving a stinging and bleeding wound behind.
This couldn't go on. If he just kept running then Odysseus was going to slowly pick him off with a death by a thousand cuts even if he didn't make any mistakes. One error was all it would take for one of those arrows to pierce his head or his heart, then it was all be over.
The irony of the situation struck him, and he almost laughed at its absurdity. Ever since coming to this world he had been phenomenally successful as a God Slayer due to the fact that he didn't fight like any Campione before him. His type of magecraft let him break the rules, let him fight with magic where it should have been impossible. Even more than his Authorities his Reality Marble had been his principle power, his edge over other Devil Kings. Now it was gone, and not only was his body barely responding, now he had to fight with his Authorities alone, something that he'd never had to do before.
Basically, he was going to have to face Odysseus as a Campione, not a magus.
It wasn't something he had any personal experience with, nor was it something he could draw upon his alternate selves for. The divine Authorities he possessed were his and his alone, and now it was time to see what he could do with them.
His mind darted back to ideas that he'd had in the past while brainstorming how he could use the godly powers he'd usurped, ideas that he'd discarded at the time because they were things he could accomplish with the Noble Phantasms he had stored in his Reality Marble more easily and efficiently. Now though, things were different, those discarded ideas were starting to look more appealing and practical.
Of course, most of them would have been more effective against a mortal than a god. Shirou wasn't too sure what would happen if he dropped a a block of gold weighing a few dozen tonnes on Odysseus, but he knew it wouldn't be enough to overcome his immortality. It might hurt though, so it was best not to dismiss it out of hand. He had a few other tricks in mind, but none of them had the sheer destructive power he was sure he'd need in order to bring down the Heretic God.
His fists clenched as he forced himself on. The situation might not be good, but Emiya Shirou was not prepared to let things end this way.
The world of endless swords was torn and broken, but it still endured.
The channels that connected the dream to the dreamer were damaged, but they were not destroyed. In time they would repair, in time the wounds inflicted by the curses bearing all the malice of mankind would heal. Worlds were strong things, they did not break easily, and by their nature they could withstand much suffering. Time was all that was needed, time to reconnect, time to heal, time to return to what it had been.
For now though the wounds remained, grass was withered and blackened, the ground cracked and broken, up in the sky the great gears screeched as they turned, their once gleaming shine now marred by rust and filth clinging to them. The sakura petals that fell from the sky were gone, now leaving only a fine ash to drift down. Even the very air was choked, the once clean air now fouled by the scent of rot and decay.
But the worst change were the swords, the endless arsenal of weapons that had once been the strength of this world had also been marred by the attack that had savaged Unlimited Blade Works. Before each sword had stood erect, stabbed into the earth and awaiting the call to arms where it would emerge to be used by the maker of the world. Every sword, save those whose own nature dictated otherwise, had been pristine, in perfect repair and ready for battle. Now . . . now many swords lay in the dirt, having fallen during the assault that had rocked the world. Others remained standing, but like the great gears above they were spotted with rust, smeared with filth, or were dulled and corroded. Not all had fallen victim, some remained ready, but so many had been afflicted by the curses that had swept through the internal world of Emiya Shirou.
However, despite the havoc that had been wrought upon the Reality Marble two things had escaped the blight entirely. No, perhaps the word 'escaped' was inaccurate, as it gave the wrong impression. This pair hadn't escaped, they had not fled, they had not hidden, instead they had resisted.
The first was a statue, pristine in white marble, not a speck of filth or dirt upon it, even though a rusted sword leaned against it and a blackened length of chain draped over it. The statue was the representation of Shirou's feelings for Sakura, and the entire world of swords would crumble into nothingness before those feelings allowed her to be tainted. It wasn't a conscious choice on his part, it was simply a part of the very distortion that allowed him to create this world in the first place.
The second was a sword that rested against the back of the statue. Silver steel, golden decoration, blue highlights, a sword that knew no peer, an Authority that defied all others. This was the weapon that had been born from the union of the memories of two mighty Noble Phantasms drawn from this world, and another drawn from where it rested in the host's body with the concept of the Authority that was named Excalibur. The result had been an Excalibur that was not the Sword of Promised Victory, nor was it the Sword of Divine Salvation. This sword was not yet titled, it did not know itself what it was. It did not think, for such was not the nature of a weapon, it did not regret, for that was not its nature either.
Instead it waited. It was Excalibur, and it would be wielded, but not now, not yet. The one that made this world, the one that could reach it, was not yet qualified to be its wielder.
The fact that its owner needed to meet these qualifications before the sword would accept them was a result of its hybrid nature. Arondight had only been held by Lancelot because he proved himself worthy of it. Avalon had served Arturia alone because it had been made for her. Excalibur, the Authority, had only come to serve the King of the End after he had undergone the quest needed to claim it. Even Excalibur, the Noble Phantasm, had possessed some qualifications upon how to possess it, even if it had no limitations upon how to wield it.
Now the new sword waited for its holder to fulfil the qualifications needed for it to be wielded, waited for the day when its power would be released. It was a sword, and a sword was meant to be wielded, meant to be used. This was a sword that had been forged by chaos and blind chance, an existence hammered out upon the anvil of causality and the need for the universe to reconcile a paradox. It was the Excalibur that both should never have existed, and which none the less had to exist in order for Excalibur to continue to be.
It was a part of Unlimited Blade Works, yet it also existed aside from it. It was an Authority of Emiya Shirou's, yet it did not yet belong to him. It was Steel, the Steel that gods coveted. For now it was not ready to wielded, so it waited.
And where else would the Strongest Steel wait but inside a world of unlimited Steel?
In the heart of Shirou's Reality Marble the sword waited to be drawn.