Different Paths: Altered Fate
I ran forward, hurrying along the path before me. Kirito would take care of Cardinal. I trust him. That guy would surely end the corrupt system that had hijacked the Holy Grail. The path he headed to was one I couldn't follow. It was his fight and his alone.
Rin, Ilya and Rider would take care of the Greater Grail. With Tohsaka's abilities, Ilya's experience and Rider's protection, there was no doubt that they would succeed as well. Nothing could stop them.
That left me. We each had our paths, and we had separated to finish them. Theirs was to ensure the world would not end, responsibilites alotted to them by the roles they held. Mine... it was to save Sakura. I was almost there. Kirito had said that she would be in the center of this dungeon.
She was vital to both the grail and Cardinal, the 'central system' he said. So I just had to reach her. I had to race through these darkened stone paths until I found her.
Seconds passed, then minutes as I ran through miles of these stone halls. Geez, what kind of crazy thing is Cardinal to be able to change the place below the temple to something like this? Gah, what am I thinking at a time like this? Sakura, I have to hurry and get to Sakura. Just keep going...!
At last, the halls began to brighten. Torches lined the walls now. If this was one of those games Kirito liked to play, then I was definitely close. The final boss always had something like this in those games.
As I had that thought, turning around the last corner, I heard an impossible voice and saw an equally impossible sight.
The hall didn't lead to a chamber. No, what was before me was an infinite wasteland, littered with an endless number of blades. And standing in the midst of it all, looking down on me from his perch on a hill of swords was the crimson knight, that Servant thought long defeated.
The crimson knight looked down at me with disapproval. "So this is what's become of you, Emiya Shirou. Running blindly through dark caverns, chasing after a girl." He scoffed and stepped to the side, revealing the person he had been hiding. The one I had been searching for this whole time.
"Sakura!" To my relief, she looked unharmed. She was dressed in a strange outfit now, a dress of black and red stripes, but looked like she was just unconscious.
I turned my attention back to the crimson knight. "Archer. Why are you here? And why is Sakura with you?"
"Heh." The knight shrugged and began his descent from the hill. "Why? At this point, I don't have a reason. But if you wanted one..." He held his hands out to the side and his blades, a familiar pair of black and white falchions, flashed into existence. "You could say I felt like taking out my anger on the foolish boy in front of me who gave everything up for a girl."
I didn't have the time to be confused about his strange words. In an instant, he had advanced, rushing towards me at blinding speeds only a Servant was capable of. A weapon. I needed a weapon. Something to match him...
I felt a pulling sensation, and blades mirroring his appeared in my hands. Swords of black and white. Twin falchions made by a famous blacksmith at the expense of his wife's life. It was strange, but I didn't have time to think about how or why the blades appeared. For now, I just had to fight!
The mirrored blades clashed, drawn together by their natures. Archer looked intrigued. "I see. Despite our difference in skill, being here is enough for you to close that gap, if ever so slightly. A miscalculation on my part." He stepped back, and dropped his swords, which shattered in a display of crystalline light. "But will that be enough? You, who turned his back on his oath... here in this realm you will be judged. How long can you last, Emiya Shirou?" The knight raised his hand and a longsword flew towards his grasp. A divine blade, wielded by Roland, able to grant three miracles to its wielder. Durandal.
Annoying. I don't know why he's doing it, but Archer's the only thing stopping me from reaching Sakura. I came here to save her. If he's going to stand in my way, I'll just have to cut him down.
I compared my blades to his. At the moment, mine were inferior. They were useful and well-crafted blades, but against a sword like the one Archer was wielding, a blade specifically made to remain eternally sharp, they wouldn't do. I needed to match it, an equal.
Again, that pulling sensation came from within and I found the blades replaced with the same longsword I observed.
"...Interesting. Without understanding it, you're copying my skills. But Shirou, that will be your downfall." He glared at me and raised his sword. "You're no longer fit to use those!"
A heavy blow came from above, knocking me backwards.
"Kuh!" My own longsword rose to meet it, but the force still knocked the wind out of me. I was amazed that I blocked the blow. For a moment, I thought I was done.
It didn't matter. How, or why I'm matching Archer doesn't matter. Right now, I just need to cut him down. I'm running out of time. Kirito and the others are heading to end the bindings on Sakura, but if I don't get her out of here soon, it will already be too late. She's already starting to become the 'heart' of both the Grail and Cardinal.
I raise my sword and parry the next blow. I still feel it, that pulling sensation from inside of me. I'm reaching for it, for the skills I need to stop Archer. Before the knight could strike again, I counter with a swift slash from the side.
He knocks it away and lunges with a piercing stab. It was fast, far faster than I could possibly block. Yet, without fail the sword in my hand rushes to meet it, my muscles burning with the feat.
Archer leaps back, the dusty ground clouding the air as he does. Again, he drops his sword, the blade dissolving in a splash of light. It didn't matter. Here in this field of infinite blades, all the crimson knight needed to do was call out and they would heed his command. But it was strange. He didn't seem to have any killing intent, only... pity?
"You can feel it, can't you? The strain that comes from forcing that strength, that magic of yours." Archer says that in a scolding tone. "It's rebelling. Since you've turned your back on that path, your own circuits are rejecting you."
I shook my head. I couldn't accept that. I couldn't accept those words. If I did, I would falter. They were right, after all. By choosing to save Sakura, I was turning my back on what I had sworn to become.
"Yes, you understand. It's not that you're matching me, but rather your abilities are forcing themselves out. Your circuits are draining, your magic being sapped away. You can feel it, can't you? This world is calling out to you, Emiya Shirou, and it's taking away what you don't deserve."
"Shut up!" Annoying. Whether his words were true or not, it was annoying. I just had to beat him, get Sakura and leave. Anything more was pointless, so why was I hesitating? He was unarmed. Even if he was a Servant, the distance between us was only a few meters. I could definitely finish him if I charged. But something was bothering me. "What do you know, anyway?!" Yes, that's what it was. Just who did Archer think he was to judge me like that? Who did he think he was to say those things?
"Hmph, you still don't see it? Man, I guess I really was dense back then." The crimson knight laughed, a bitter laugh. "It's so pathetic it's almost comical. Finally, I get this chance and I find the paths have already diverged so much that it doesn't matter anymore."
What? The paths have diverged...?
"Archer. What are you talking about?"
The crimson knight summons yet another blade into his hand, all while giving me a scornful glare. "I had hoped to rectify my mistakes. To stop the one who would run down the path of a superhero without looking back. Instead, I find that he's given up on that ideal. Given up on that core desire of his almost as easily as someone changes their clothes. Do you have any idea how irritating that is for me?"
I took a step back, readying my blades. Archer was mad. It seems that something I did had caused him to be unstable, made him lose his mind.
"Hahaha... Pathetic. In the end, I guess my life was nothing more than a farce." The knight's face hardened, all previous pretenses of kindness or sympathy vanishing from his visage. "You asked what I know? Emiya Shirou, I know more than you could imagine." He took a step forward, the blade in his hand shifting to a demonic one, giving off an aura of bloodthirst.
"I am the bone of my sword."
Pain. Like the smelting heat of a furnace. Pain, searing through my circuits. Those words echoed in my head, resounding somewhere deep inside me, and that part called out, rebelling against my body.
"Wh...at?" It was like I was being torn apart from the inside out. Microscopic blades, tearing at my organs, bones, flesh.
The knight took another step forward.
"Steel is my body and fire is my blood."
"Gah!" My blood was burning. What was Archer doing...? That spell of his... how is it doing this to me?
"I have created over a thousand blades. Unknown to death, nor known to life."
I fall to my knees as the pain doubles. Burning. I'm burning from the inside. I look to the blade in my hand and noticed that it's somehow splintered.
"Have withstood pain to create many weapons. Yet, those hands will never hold anything."
I can't see him anymore. The fire in my body's burned out my sight. As if judging me for my sins on turning my back to my path, I return to a place like ten years ago. This sweltering heat and searing pain... it's just like back then.
"So, as I pray. Unlimited blade works."
Something inside me breaks with those words and I lose something I can never get back. At the same time, I feel something rush in, knowledge that isn't, and yet is mine.
A 'me' who spent his whole life honing his skills. A 'me' who wanted to save as many people as he could, all so that he wouldn't have to see them cry. He was always running from conflict to conflict, using his skills to end them. Yet, the 'me' who wanted to save those around him could only end up killing to save even more.
It was impossible to save everyone. That was the cold reality engraved upon his soul. Even when he gave his soul after death to 'Humanity' to act as a guardian, all he could do was kill more, unable to save anyone. That was his fate, the one who I could have become, the one that I did become.
My vision clears and I see him standing before me, blade raised. Heroic spirit EMIYA, the one that represented the end of that path to save everyone. The ideal 'me' that had been almost impossibly summoned back into the time before he became a Hero. He looks down at me with a cold and disapproving look. "I said it before didn't I? Here, Emiya Shirou, in this realm. In the representation of your... No, of our souls, you will be judged. Look for yourself, the place that you've now turned your back on."
Flames. That's the only thing I can see. Flames, stretching out for eternity. Within them are blades, melting in the heat. But above it all was the noise, the mournful screeching of yielding steel. And in the middle of it all, below a pitch black sun, was Sakura. A warped cage of swords surrounded her, holding her captive in this hellish field.
"Archer! You...! Let her go!" I try to put strength in my body, to stand up and face him.
"Hmph. Don't you see? I am not doing this. Here, I only act as the executioner. As the Counter Guardian that I am." The crimson knight frowned. "It's true that I would end her, but the one that's keeping her there isn't me. No, Shirou. This is you. For rejecting yourself, this is your punishment."
The warped steel blades, rise into the air, turning towards me with a mournful cry as they bend in the heat. For a moment, I'm reminded of the time back then, of the lives and memories I walked over just to keep living. Shadowy figures, lurking past the flames...
No. I couldn't be drawn in by that illusion. Even if everything's true, even if this realm is all my doing, I can't stop. I have to save Sakura. I have to save her!
I rose to my feet, ignoring the searing pain my body's giving me. Too much time has been wasted now. If I don't hurry, everything will be lost.
"...You still plan to fight? Fine." He summons (projects) a sword and throws it down at my feet. "Take it. I'll show you how futile it was to deny yourself for her."
I grit my teeth and grab the blade. This guy... I don't care if he's me. He still doesn't have the right. A guy like him would never understand. "Don't you underestimate me. I'll save her!" Roaring those words, as if a declaration to myself and the world, I advance. I swing my sword with all my might. It's easily blocked, and I'm shoved back by the crimson knight.
"Is that so?" he says in a mocking tone. "Then show me, Shirou. Show me how you plan to accomplish this miracle of yours when you can't even face yourself."
I swing the blade in a furious combo. Up, down, left, right. Attack follows attack without pause, a torrent of strikes that should send him reeling. They don't. Archer deflects every blow, looking amused. I ignore it and try again. This time, I attack in arcs, left, right and across. Sweeping blows meant to split him in two. Again, they're easily blocked.
"You...!" I raise my sword for a heavy smash, and then he acts.
A swift blow without pretext, cutting straight across my body. For a moment, I felt a searing pain as the blade cuts through flesh, but I ignore it. It's not fatal, only a scratch. Archer still isn't serious. That means I can beat him. I just have to get one hit in. One strike, that's all I need.
I try again, executing a three strike combo I had seen Kirito perform. My blade rushed forward, tracing out a '4' as it cut towards Archer. He parries it again, and steps past my guard. Before I could react, he counters with a merciless slash.
"Kuh!" I fly backwards from the sheer force of the blow, landing on my back. My blood is spilling out, the things needed for me to be alive pooling out on the ground.
Ah. I see. It was impossible from the start. Emiya Shirou cannot defeat the ideal known as EMIYA. First of all, he is the perfection of the ideal. The end point of the path to save everyone. No matter how much I try, I cannot beat him.
–But I have to. If I don't, I'll lose Sakura. Angra Manyu will be born and the world will end, washed away in the sins of humanity. Even if Kirito and the others succeed, if Sakura's not out of here when they do, she'll just disappear.
I can't let that happen.
"You're a fool. To turn back on everything you had lived for, just for her... you're more of a fool than I was."
A fool? Maybe I am. I shouldn't be happy. I don't have the right to choose one person over the rest. For my sin of living in that hellish place, I must save as many as I can.
–But I can't exist without Sakura.
So it's a paradox.
Emiya Shirou died to become a blade that will save in atonement for his life. Because he's such an existence, he shouldn't falter. Yet, Sakura is someone who is essential to Emiya Shirou, a vital part he can't live without. The ideal conflicts with the desire.
The bloodied counter guardian crossed his arms and looked down at me. "Give up now. Even if you reach her, there's nothing you can do. You can't free her from the Grail. Even if you could, it isn't worth it. You can't place one life over the rest. If she lives, the cost will be great. Thousands could perish, innocents dead in vain. Knowing that, why do you still wish to save her?"
He was waiting for my response. A contemplative look, yet one that knew his answer.
It was annoying. The red Archer in front of me. The SELF that I must overcome.
–I am the bone of my sword.
I am my ideal. To save everyone is all that Emiya Shirou has, the sole purpose of the one who survived where no one else did. After being hollowed out by the flames, that was the only thing he had. It was something he had to fulfill, his nature and origin in life.
–Steel is my body and fire is my blood
So what? Sakura is important to me. Even more than my own self.
–I will have created over a thousand blades
So I can't give up. I can't lose here, especially against something as trivial as myself.
–Aware of loss but unaware of gain
I've always lost, but even then...
–Withstanding pain for the sake of one's arrival
For her, for those I hold dear. I'll withstand it all.
–These hands unfit to hold anything
I don't deserve this. I don't deserve the happiness that she brings me. I don't have the right to value her life above any other. If I follow this path, I'll lose more than what I gain. It's a fact.
–Strive towards the life beyond Unlimited Blade Works
But it doesn't matter. I'll always keep going, as long as she needs me. As long as I'm needed. I'll turn my back on my past and never look back, if that means I can save her.
–And so I plead, grant me the strength of Infinite Illusionary Blades
I say the words that should have been forbidden. Unlimited Blade Works is gone. I can no longer recreate blades and call them forth at will. That ability belongs to the Emiya Shirou that decided to walk the path of a defender of justice.
But projection was never part of that world. It was only a tool, used to channel the blades forged within. Though that world is gone, the ability is not lost.
I stand up. Archer looks surprised, but the look smooths into one of disdain.
I ignore it. All that matters is that he must be defeated.
If he is my ideal... then I must become something better. I must become something that can match him. A fake. That is all I am. All that I will ever be. A delusion.
–But a delusion can become reality. Believe in it. Believe in yourself.
I stared at Archer, and held out my hands. I'll make it. I'll become what can defeat him. I'll erase the SELF in front of me and start again.
I search for it, the one thing that the SELF I face could never wield. The one blade he could never recreate, no matter how many years he spent with it. I reach out my hand, and it appears in a flash of golden light.
Archer took a step back. For a second, his composure is gone. That grim self, that cocky expression is vanished, replaced with confusion. "...What? That blade- Excaliber...?"
Excaliber, The Measure of One's Worth. Kirito's ultimate blade, the conceptual weapon that represented the Caliber of himself and his allies. In that realm of fantasy, the blade was the strongest of all swords with no equal. But that wasn't its true power. No, its power was in its origin, changing to suit the one who had shown his worth, his measure.
For Archer, the one who valued his ideal more than his own self, than any others, it was the embodiment of all he gave up. It was a sword that brought out one's potential in order to save others. One that set the self as a balance to determine what's important. For a person who threw his own self away for that ideal, who sacrificed everything for a dream, it was nothing more than an untouchable illusion.
For me, the one who discarded his ideal to protect others, who would delude himself into believing this path was worth it, no matter how much I had to give up, it was a reminder. The embodiment of sacrifice, of becoming the scale, sword, and shield to protect those you care about. An illusion that I forced into reality.
It wasn't enough.
I reached further, piercing into my soul and his for what will defeat him. Another flash of golden light, and another blade appears in my opposite hand. One I had never seen, but knew from Archer's memories. In this close proximity, all that he had seen was available for me. This was one of those memories, the divine blade of the strongest knight, the holy king of Britain: Excalibur, The Sword of Promised Victory.
-These aren't the real blades. They never will be. The Sword of One's Measure will always belong to Kirito, the one who had shown his worth along with his comrades to obtain it and the Sword of Promised Victory will always belong to the king of knights, resting in the realm of fairies.
Delusions. These are all I have, and the only thing they will ever be. A momentary existence, granted upon me by the will of the blades. An illusional phantasm that will exist for only so long as I need their power, as long as my cause resonates with their own and matches their origin of Sword.
I straighten my body and then settle into a stance I had seen Kirito assume many times. "–Archer. I'll beat you. If Sakura will die by MY hands, I'll just have to kill my SELF before I reach her."
Yes. If EMIYA would kill Sakura to save everyone, then I'll kill him first. I would rather die than let those I hold dear perish. Kirito taught me that, and I won't let him down.
Archer sneered. "You... I see. You've changed. Damn, that Black Saber changed things more than I thought." The blood knight summoned his own blades. Black and white falchions, the parallels of his sins. Life and death.
I readied my blades. "Here I come Archer. I'll surpass you."
The blood-stained ideal scoffed and readied his blades. "You fool. I'll erase you."
The battle begins anew.
A/N: Right. So I got bored and wrote this when I really should have been working on other fics. The basic premise here is an altered Heaven's Feel path where Kirito was summoned instead of Saber and Shirou learns to value those around him above his ideal during the time they spend. Also, Cardinal contaminated the Grail with Kirito's summoning, and was hijacked by Angra Mainyu, melding the Greater Grail with the Cardinal System for Reality Altering phenomena.
Thus UBW manifesting in a physical area and Archer being summoned as a Counter Guardian.
Not much else to say. Hope it was a good read.