The two lovers slept, as eternity and eons passed by. It was the world of eternal spring, the seat of the soul of the World itself. Time did not matter or flow here as it did in the world of the living.
After seeking and waiting one another for an eternity, a miracle had occurred. One that defied all convention and belief, and one that no one except for three people would ever know about.
If the world of the living had continued to exist as it always had, that is.
The long separated lovers would have slumbered in each other's arms for all time, the only witness to the reunion having been a magus who sat locked away in a garden of flowers, repenting for all time.
But events aligned unexpectedly and the world was destroyed. The anthropic principles were uprooted and all of humanity was unmade. And by happenstance, outside the flow of time and removed from the world of change, these three continued to exist.
And so, the gears of change begin to turn once more.
Cú Chulainn raised his hand, a finger extended.
He hadn't been the only one to notice the disturbance in magical energy, the fluctuating life force, that had just appeared. Normally, it wouldn't have been enough to warrant an investigation, he felt. But right now in this smoldering husk of a lifeless city it stood out like a bonfire in the dark; it might mean living people.
He had already spotted that red Archer bastard—who had been patrolling the city and taking out any survivors with extreme prejudice—who in turn had spotted and been drawing a bead on the newly arrived strangers for a half a minute. Cú Chulainn judged that if they were complete amateurs, they would already be dead before the arrows of this Archer.
They had had a few clashes—that bastard and himself—but with both possessing such high mobility and a preference for ranged combat, no critical exchanges has occurred. But the two had not died, yet.
But, the Archer was drawing another of his infernal swords. Which meant...
"They're still alive, huh. Maybe they're worth a look see." The druid grinned and prepared his rune, taking aim at the completely open and distracted Archer.
The lance of fire that launched from the marking he drew easily surpassed the speed of sound and crossed the distance in an instant. Cú Chulainn grinned a wicked, toothy smile as he knew it was a perfect surprise attack. But—
The Archer in black and red noticed something amiss at the last instant, leaping off his high perch and astralizing to make distance in utmost haste. Caster tsk'ed in annoyance and lowered his hand. He had missed the timing to pursue and the bowman already had made enough distance to be safe.
Moreover, that tricky bastard was sure to have prepared a multitude of nasty surprises for anyone who followed his trail. Dirty, cheating no-good bastard that he was. Caster spat on the ground, he had thought to astralize and flank around, but just thinking about being forced to act cautious due to such a bastard made him angry. "I'll show him not to underestimate a druid of the forest."
Caster leaped forward, making chase. He could sense several traps and snares ahead, no doubt prepared just for this eventuality. He avoided the dangers, relying as much on his magical detection as his keen senses. He was an experienced hunter and woodsman; being able to avoid getting ambushed by the prey you hunted was the basic of the basics!
Ahead, the Archer noticed and took a hard turn to the left and began to sprint full out. Caster could of course not seen the astralized Servant, but for all that he had lost in this form his magics were honed to their peak; sensing a spirit even at this distance was no challenge at all! For an instant, he noticed something below him. Something, which had been asleep but had been suddenly roused.
Caster's attention wavered for a moment and he landed heavily. In the corner of his eye he could see something being shot right at him; no doubt an arrow by that Archer who had noticed his pursuer and set up to harass.
Cú Chulainn faced a choice in this instant; to avoid combat as he had two opponents before him and try again later, or press on. In another world, perhaps he had a cool enough head to retreat. But in this one, he decided to stand his ground.
Caster raised his staff, drawing six runes in the air in an instant with his other hand as he shouted out, "Hah! You'll have to do better than that!"
And the presence flickered again and suddenly Caster felt like he had awoken a mountain. He turned, but it was already too late. He felt the heavy breathing on his hair before he heard it or saw the shadow standing next to him.
Death came instantaneously as the Black Destroyer ripped apart the Caster with one swing.
"Awawa! Ah, not good. Not good at all!" The man shouted and collapsed into his chair as he rubbed his brow.
"Sir! Still no contact with the party that managed to Rayshift!" A woman wearing a similar uniform to the first man turned around, reporting swiftly and concisely.
"Try and get the scanners online! We should at least be able to see what's going on if we can do that." Romani Archaman ordered as he tried to collect himself, rubbing his orange messy hair with one hand.
"Yessir!" The woman acknowledged and turned back around, her fingers rapidly hitting the keyboard as all around them men and women of Chaldea were buzzing about.
"What a disaster. Why did this happen? Ah, should I ask for MAGI MARI's help online? She would know what to do..." Dr. Roman lamented as he frowned. The woman in front of him twitched, before turning back to give him the stink-eye. "Aahahah, that was a joke. A joke."
Ah, I'll do it on my phone, so they won't notice... There.
"Sir! We have a signal and their comm device is responding!" The woman suddenly shouted, turning back to look at him. He fumbled with the phone for a second before nodding seriously and ignoring the look in her eyes, like she was staring down at a cockroach.
"Patch it through!"
"Aahahaha... Well, things certainly have become troublesome..." The white-haired magus laughed lightly as he scratched his jawline. His voice tinkled, as if wind-chimes on a spring morning with soft drops of dew clinging to the sides.
Merlin sat alone in a small prison, surrounded by the flower-filled gardens of Avalon for as far as the eye could see. Certainly, it was an irony considering the famed magus' moniker.
For once, he did not know how to simply make things work to get the ending he desired. The majority of the world was gone, Chaldea was stranded and the Fuyuki Singularity was not looking good.
Perhaps if they had an ally with them... But as it was, they would be forced to face the shadow of his once pupil alone. No, more than that. They would face what had become of the girl he had turned into a heartless tyrant. There was bitter regret and guilt there, but he would never acknowledge it. Could never acknowledge it, even as the walls of his prison stood ever-unbreakable around him.
Only the sinless may pass.
Those words had hurt him, so he had tried to walk past them as if he had nothing to fear.
Thus here he sat, forever and ever, to pay his penance for toying with mankind. But, at least she hadn't walked all the way to hell. There was a little comfort in knowing that somehow, right the end, she had ceased to persist and given up. It made little sense to the magus of flowers, knowing her as well as he did. But she had accepted her end and walked off that hill on her own. He did not know what kind of world the shadow which now persisted in the Singularity had come from, but he could tell that she was the result of that hill breaking her.
That brought him a realization.
Could she perhaps assist those children from Chaldea? He stilled as the thought persisted, even as he wondered whether he had the right to bother her once again. Merlin shook his head; she wouldn't see it like that. He would present her with a choice and she would make her own mind.
She had already become someone who would defy his predictions, much to his relief some centuries ago as he had witnessed her reject the World. Let her decide whether to intervene and all the better if she did. If not...
Well, he would think about it if it came down to that. Now, how to connect space and time...
At least he had something to work with, given that those two had been in Fuyuki in 2004. Creating an opening for them inside the Singularity should be possible.
"Come now, Artoria. Show me once more your radiant figure..."
Artoria Pendragon, King of Knights and the Once and Future King of the Britons, sat up with a frown and a shiver.
Above her, the green leaves and the thick branches of the forest canopy half-obscured the streaming sunlight to create spot of shade where the glimmering lights would dance with the breeze. In this land of eternal spring where no disease, hunger or suffering was permitted, she should have been resting alone until the Briton's once more had need of their Once and Future King.
She looked left and right, her frown only deepening as she tried to find the source of the peculiar sensation that had run down the back of her spine. It was as if that troublesome old man was talking about her behind her back again...
But that was impossible.
Surely, that old man must have perished ages ago. Besides, this was Avalon. She could hardly believe that such an... indiscriminate and flighty man as her teacher, could easily arrive at this place. No, on the other hand he was a very talented and able individual. Still... The warm body beside her stirred and rose to sit up. She could feel his curious gaze on her, his hand gripping hers as if to make sure she was still here in his arms after all this time.
"...What is it?" Shirou asked, his dark bass sounding a bit awkward, as if he hadn't spoke in a very long time.
She shook her head, as much to clear her thoughts as to indicate that it wasn't anything to worry about. "It is of no consequence, merely a trick of the imagination."
But the man seemed to notice something as well, his brows furrowing as he looked out into the distance. "There's the scent of smoke in the air."
She frowned and already all traces and thoughts of sleep had vanished from either. They rose up as one, their fingers still entwined as they walked hand in hand out from under the shade of the apple trees.
They walked for a while, passing glades and grassland, forests and flatland. The sky shone brightly and no exhaustion, hunger or thirst bothered them. Time was inconsequential, thus they could have traveled a thousand miles or a mere two strides for all that they noticed the passing landscape in their quest.
Finally they arrived at the source of the peculiar sensations.
By now, they had already both realized that despite the scent of smoke, there was none in the air itself. Neither had ever had any need for a fire here, so they weren't sure if it could even exist in this realm. Still, the source as they located it, only served to confuse and intrigue them further.
After all, before them lay a small forest pond. Its waters were dark and who-knew-how-deep. The surface was still as a mirror, yet it reflected nothing of the above and revealed none of what lay below.
"I've never seen anything like this before... Have you?" Shirou asked as he turned to his Saber with a questioning look.
Artoria shook her head as she frowned. "I have not, not before nor after our first meeting."
They both fell silent once more, as they pondered the still waters. Shirou wondered, if she had chosen to use their war as a reference point due to being reminded of it. After all, what they could see in the pond was not any everyday reflection or scene.
Hollowed husks of buildings, dark fires and an all-permeating scene of death. They saw the dead and dying city, whose streets they had once walked together. There were signs of battle and of chaos everywhere, but nothing yet lived to tell of the strife.
"That's... Fuyuki, isn't it?" Shirou finally said what they were both thinking.
"Indeed. What kind of ill portent is this? Some dark mirage or fel vision?" Artoria could not understand the meaning of the pond's would-be reflection.
"...I think it might be some kind of portal. I can feel the heat from here." Shirou frowned as he took a step back, just in case he might fall in accidentally. Saber blinked as she looked back and forth between him and the pond, before following his example.
The two stood in silence, looking at the dark vista the still waters presented, neither sure what to make of it.
"Shall we sally forth?" Artoria finally asked, having arrived at a resolution. She had never been one to hesitate when faced with new situations and while she may not admit it, she had been getting a little bored lately.
Shirou merely looked at her with a raised brow, knowing what she was thinking. He sighed, also knowing that he could not deny his own curiosity and the old call of his idealism. He had been worn down and tired of that old belief, before he had arrived here. But now it was a nostalgic and true thing, something which he could still claim to love after resting and reuniting with his love. Also, Fuyuki had been his home for many years and the sight of it in flames was more than a little unsettling; he was just as interested as she was.
"...I really should be arguing against it, but I can't think of a good reason." Shirou shrugged with a chuckle. "I really must be getting rusty if I can't even think of a half-decent quip. Perhaps some exercise would do away with all this rust?"
"Together?" She asked with a smile of her own, becoming noticeably smaller and more restrained as she assumed her knightly self once more. Shirou nodded in reply and she made to leap in, only to stop as Shirou grabbed her hand. She blinked at him, her mouth making a perfect circle in her confusion at his pulling her back. "What is it?"
He cleared his throat, before pointing at her feet. Her bare and uncovered feet. Her toes wiggled in response at the attention, almost reflexively. Neither was wearing any shoes and she was wearing only a simple white dress, her blonde hair hanging freely on her shoulders.
"Oh." She blinked, before nodding and closing her eyes. With an effort of magical energy, a pair of leather riding boots appeared on her feet. She looked at her partner to see if it satisfied his requirements, noticing that he had mirrored her actions in his own way as a pair of boots of more modern design appeared in his hands.
She helped him put them on, both taking one boot and one foot as Shirou sat down. Shirou halfheartedly protested, but she ignored him with a smile.
Now that both were wearing proper shoes once more, she nodded and they without hesitation stepped forward as one. The water chilled but for a moment and nigh instantly they were through, no wetness on their skin or cold seeping through their clothes.
Instead, the wide vista expanded before their eyes as they could behold the entire city of Fuyuki. Shinto, Miyama, the river that cut through the two parts, the harbor and the temple and church in the distant horizon.
They could see it all, as they had suddenly appeared far above the city in the air.
"Huh?" Artoria had barely time to utter her surprise, before they began to fall so quickly that the wind made it impossible to say anything. There was a moment of worry as she realized she could handle the fall, but Shirou might not. But that was unnecessary, she realized as she felt the tiny effort of magical energy he expended to Reinforce himself.
Shirou had grown strong enough to match his inner character in the time they had spent apart, she noted with a sad smile. He must have struggled and despaired for long years to become capable enough to match his dream, she thought.
The impact of their landing cracked and shattered the concrete beneath their feet as they landed on the rooftop of a tall building in Shinto. They scanned their surroundings, somewhat mollified about the rough landing by the fact that they had landed on one of the taller buildings which lent them a good view of the general area. The more modern half of Fuyuki, with its rows upon rows of uniformly built apartment houses, business fronts and street-side shops along with the occasional tower block caused this half of Fuyuki to be nigh indistinguishable from any other modern Japanese city.
Of course the soot, the destruction, the remnants of fire and wide-scale conflict had scarred the city beyond recognition. As alienated and bothered by the warped visage of the familiar city as Shirou was, Shirou felt almost more familiar with the destroyed remains of a city than he did with the memory of his old hometown. He shook his head, ridding himself of those old memories.
The horizon glowed red in the distance and there were no sounds of life to be heard, anywhere.
"...What happened here?" Artoria asked, eyeing the shattered windows and the cracked walls that surrounded them. Nothing had been spared, it seemed.
"...I'm not sure. It doesn't match anything I ever ran into. There are no signs of stray bullets, shelling or demolitions. But there are gouge and impact marks, and blood splatters here and there. At least, no conventional or contemporary military caused this. I can't imagine any natural disaster doing this either." Shirou said, crouching down to take a closer look down into the streets. "We should expected melee combatants."
Artoria nodded seriously, considering his words with care. While she could be said to be a veteran of urban conflicts thanks to her experiences in the Holy Grail Wars, she was sure that her knowledge paled in comparison to Shirou's on this subject.
"I haven't seen any survivors." Shirou after another moment, a touch of bitterness in his voice. Artoria nodded, feeling her spirits slightly lowered by his words. But Shirou continued, his brows furrowed as he concentrated at something just beyond his sensory grasp. "There's some sort of wide-scale spell overlaid on top of the leylines, some sort of bounded field I think. By the river. It feels somehow familiar."
Artoria blinked as something caught her eye in the distance. "Shirou."
The taller of the two noticed that her attention had been caught by something and hastened to find out the cause. He blinked as well at the sight before him. There was a shambling skeleton down on the road, some three blocks away. It was dragging a large cleaver of some sort as it moved forward, seemingly without aim.
"A dragon tooth warrior? Is it the work of Caster?" Artoria instantly was on guard, her eyes scanning left and right.
"...Could be, but let's not be hasty. Dragon tooth warriors are hardly a unique spell; while they were the hallmark of the King of Colchis, they have been in use throughout the ages by various great magi. It might not be that witch. And..." Shirou said, trying to calm his partner, but keeping his eyes open and observing the skeleton as it continued its slow and unhurried steps. Finally, he noticed the discrepancy that had bothered him. "That's not a dragon tooth warrior; it's a skeleton."
She looked at him with a raised eyebrow, not quite sure what he meant, before she realized it as well. "Is it one of the townspeople?"
He didn't want to answer, but his grim countenance all but confirmed his thoughts on the matter.
Artoria nodded and took a deep breath, before eyeing the lone skeleton shambling forward. "Shall we engage?"
Shirou shrugged, but voiced his objection. "There's no point; we might just draw the attention of someone onto ourselves. Let's scout around first."
She nodded and they turned around. They started out first walking around the multi-floor building noting everything unusual, before took a running start and jumped to the adjacent building and then without stopping to the next on after that.
The wind blew through their hairs, whipping at their clothes as they soared through the air. The city air—unlike Avalon's refreshing and calming scent, which vitalized as much as it made one feel like taking a nice afternoon nap—was hot, heavy and oppressive with the smell of death and the clogging texture of smoke.
They leaped off one building onto another, covering ground quickly while avoiding the notice of anyone or anything below them in the streets and alleyways.
The heat of the flames at places had been such that the asphalt roads had molten and run freely, the pavement had been warped and cracked, with buildings in the state of half-collapse here and there. Cars lay strewn about on the streets and half-embedded into walls or upside down in ditches, abandoned or crashed who knew how.
Finally arriving at the river, they jumped down from the buildings and landed on the street. On the way, they had seen no survivors and only a handful of skeleton warriors which seemed to be mindlessly roaming about without purpose.
This was where Shirou had felt the bounded field, therefore they had decided it was where they should start their investigation. Alongside the river ran a footway with trees and grass planted to spruce up the view. Shirou and Artoria both remembered this scene well, along with the park near the bridge, but now it looked almost unrecognizable with all the grime, ash and dead plant-life.
As they stopped, they beheld the other side of the city across the river, sighing in frustration and disappointment as the destruction and desolation seemed just as ever-present there as it had been on this side of the Mion river.
They turned to look at each other, when Artoria froze as she looked over Shirou's shoulder.
"Shirou—!" Artoria tensed, obviously distressed at something and Shirou turned around expecting a fight, only to freeze as well.
"What the..." Shirou froze as he spotted the numerous human outlines ahead. There was surge of hope, before he realized that they stood too still. Inhumanly, utterly so. As his eyes adjusted, he could tell why immediately. Assuming these were not statues, the only explanation he could think of was, "Petrification magic?"
Artoria turned to look at him as he turned to look back at her. They nodded and both kicked off towards the statues.
The mere hundred or two meters passed by in a blur as they stopped, heads swiveling one way and then the other, looking for threats or any survivors. But they saw nothing, except the dozens of frozen forms that littered the riverside.
Rather than being clustered or grouped up, it was more accurate to say that they were strewn about here and there, as if people had been pulled in at random and been petrified at different intervals. As if survivors had seen the human-like statues and come to investigate, only to be ensnared as well.
"Keep your guard up; petrification magic can be resisted but requires strong counter magic." Shirou said offhandedly as he looked around. It was more make sure they were on the same page, than to make sure that his old Saber knew. He had plenty of faith in her ability to resist whatever had been used on these people, but he had no such confidence in himself.
She looked back at him and nodded, understanding that she would take point as he would rather not be affected and become a liability. She smiled lightly, suddenly feeling quite reminiscent of a time long ago, when they had fought together just like this. With Shirou at her back, she feared nothing.
Suddenly, they heard it.
The heavy sound of steel on steel; the clarion call of conflict, as two warriors clashed with their spirits roaring to match the sparks of their weapons colliding. Shirou and Artoria both noticed it, so clearly they had to wonder how they could have missed the two presences a moment before. Neither needed to even look at the other or exchange words, as they both exploded into a run down the riverside walkway towards the large red bridge.
The sounds were coming from the other side, behind the park and a little ways further down the river. As they cleared the bridge, they could see it.
Dozens more of the petrified people, surrounding a group of people, with chains further ahead blocking all passage. Shirou frowned as he could feel another bounded field localizing and being locked in place, just as he could taste the similarity that had been bothering him for while now. The familiar figure, an enemy they had both faced before and recognized even at a distance from the sheer bloodlust and barely restrained violence she exuded, spread her hair that suddenly turned into snakes that entwined around railings and lamp posts before turning into chains as the bounded field actualized.
The three other figures, clearly on the back foot, were now trapped. Shirou could for an instant see the expression of anger on Artoria's face before she exploded forward like a shooting star, leaving him in the dust.
He tried to shout after her, but realizing it was too late he ground his teeth and looked within instead. If he could not make it, then he would merely make sure that she would not arrive there alone.
The radiant King of Knights leaped and descended into the ring in an explosion of magical energy and pavement as she materialized her full armor and closed in on the hooded scythe wielder. It was difficult to say who was the most surprised; the three who had been a hair's breadth away from being attacked again by the long haired Servant, the Servant herself, or Artoria as she realized she had no sword.
Ah, I no longer possess Excalibur—
The blade had been in her possession so long and she had had no need of it in Avalon, thus her act of returning the blade to the Lady of the Lake had entirely fled her mind in this instant as her old instinct had awoken. But, the proud Knight King does not retreat in the face of an enemy. More importantly, her Instinct and her complete trust in her partner were shouting at her that there was no need for hesitation!
As she closed in, already a mere three steps away from the villain before her, she could feel something closing in on her as if an archer had taken aim at her. The words in her chest burst out, her old feud with this fiend bursting aflame anew at the memory of all the pain and destruction she had caused before and further fueled by the understanding that all these petrified people were her doing as well.
"Prepare yourself, Rider!"
The scythe-wielding woman blinked, realizing that her opponent was unarmed but still hesitating for a moment. Artoria in that instant before arriving in striking distance felt the arrow aimed at her and reared back her hand. No, not at her. To her.
Her hand—stretched out behind her as if she were a runner reaching back for a baton pass—felt something and she closed her fingers around the familiar hilt as she closed the final meter between them. Her furious mien broke into a victorious smile as she struck forward, her sword blazing like a hundred golden torches in her grasp.
The would-be-Rider's eyes widened in shock and she barely had time to raise her lance to block the mighty blow, but her stance crumbled beneath the strike and she was forced to leap back once, twice and thrice until she was leaning back against her own chains which marked the boundary of their scene of battle.
Caliburn! Artoria thought with elation at her reunion with her old partner. The sword almost hummed in joy at her touch and she brought it forward into her usual guard, pointing straight at her opponents face with the tip, as if to say 'You shall step forward no more!', lest the blade objects and parts you of your life.
The confusion in the newly identified Rider's eyes was visible for everyone to see, as she gaped. "S-Saber! Why, why are you here? What is the meaning of this?"
"Silence! You shall not go unpunished, Rider!" Artoria burst forward like a comet and the other would have certainly been struck down, had she not vaulted over the boundary of the chains and made some more distance between them as Artoria halted before the chains for a moment.
"R-Rider?" The taller woman seemed completely and utterly confused by now as she repeated the word, only retreating further as Artoria smashed apart the chains in her way and chased after the scythe wielder. But Artoria could not catch up, as the nimbler and taller women kept back, warily staring at the knight. They came to a stop as both realized that they were at an impasse. The knight could smash down the fiend with one blow, but that fiend could outrun the knight and keep her distance indefinitely. "No, no. You aren't that Saber at all, are you? I see. This is some mishap, a quirk of fate." The woman straightened as she smiled, a thing of malice and temptation in equal measure. "To think I would get the chance to repay the humiliation of my defeat on her likeness. This is not bad, this is not bad at all."
The cloaked woman turned to dash off, Artoria's indignant shout behind her not even giving her pause. But—
"Well, if you're running away I guess she won't mind if I butt in."
The sudden voice from above did cause her to hesitate just for an instant. It came with the realization that the Saber's sword had not come from nowhere, that there had been another there who she had not seen moving in the shadows. The golden sword had been launched to Artoria at such an angle as to hide it's trajectory entirely from the tall woman, a testament to the skill of the man who had managed to shoot and pass it over without fail.
And that instant's hesitation sealed her fate as four swords sealed her movements by piercing her limbs; the blades sinking in all the way to the crossguard, the tips embedding themselves into the concrete. Accompanying the four swords that had found their mark were twelve more which she even in her complete surprise had managed to deflect and parry aside.
The woman collapsed, barely managing to use her scythe as a crutch to keep from falling on her face. As she tried to find him, her eyes blazed with anger. "You—! Archer!"
But Shirou took no risks; he had never figured out Rider's identity during his life, but now the clues had piled up until the conclusion was inevitable. She had been Medusa; youngest of the Gorgon sisters and the great monster that Perseus had slain. She who had been slain by the divinity slaying sword, Harpe which she now held. She who had birthed the great Pegasus upon her death, which she had ridden before. She who had snakes for hair and eyes that turned those she beheld to stone.
She was a monster of the highest order, an opponent never to be tangled with lightly. Thus...
It made no sense to lock eyes with the Medusa, so Shirou withdrew and changed his sniping spot as he scanned the surroundings for anyone else. He had done plenty to give Artoria the opening she needed and it wouldn't do for someone to be drawn in by the sounds of their fighting and to get a drop on Artoria while she was busy.
Down on the streets, Artoria stopped before the wounded woman, who was desperately but futilely trying to heal her wounds. Her eyes blazed with anger, but Artoria shrugged aside the magic and malice in that gaze with her vast magical energy and raised her sword.
Whatever the woman had been trying to say mattered not, as her last words were swept away by the dry, hot winds as Artoria's golden sword cut her head cleanly off her shoulders. The statuesque body stiffened for a moment, before turning to purple motes of light and disappearing as he corporeal body was dispersed.
Artoria swung her sword once to the side, leaving a streak of blood in its wake on the pavement, which slowly began to disappear as well. She for a moment sought for Caliburn's old sheath at her hip, only to realize with a startle that she was not wearing it. With a chastisement at herself for having made so many mistakes already, she swore to return to training once more as her discipline had obviously withered to unacceptable levels. Sloth is the enemy, she told herself. She exerted her magical energy and the air around her howled for a second, before Invisible Air covered her sword and she let go of it. Hidden by the winds, her sword was sheathed and ready until she needed it. She turned to face the three she had sought to assist, and offered them a smile.
"Are you unhurt?"
The trio, two women and a one man, all nodded after a moment.
"Umm, we're fine... Thank you for the help." The young women, holding a truly massive shield shaped like a cross, said as she approached. She offered a polite bow, but Artoria hardly noticed as her confusion at the other's appearance all but froze her in place. For a moment, Artoria wondered if it truly was him, but upon noting the curve of hip and swelling of chest upon the Shielder's body, she dismissed that notion.
Unless one of her knights had been hiding their gender, it was impossible for that person to be standing before her. Moreover, she did not seem to recognize Artoria at all. No, despite the obvious similarities this was someone else.
"Umm, is something the matter?" The woman—or rather girl—before her asked, a hint of concern in her voice as Artoria had been staring at her. But Artoria did not fail to notice that she was placing herself between the knight and her own companions, the slight tenseness of her shoulder indicating the girl's readiness. She approved, but more than that, she frowned at the shield. How did she come to possess that shield? A descendant?
"Who are you?!" The other woman, with long white hair and a far more conservative and conventional outfit asked, stepping forth. For a moment, Artoria felt strangely reminded of Rin but then she shook it off. She was about to answer, when Shirou landed beside her from his rooftop perch earlier.
The trio was startled once more, perhaps more by his appearance than his act of appearing. Artoria smiled ruefully; Shirou had certainly filled out and grown with the years. He stood towering above everybody else, his bare arms showing off his considerable musculature as he crossed his arms to stare at the three, obviously not impressed. Though he eyed the shield thoughtfully as well, giving Artoria a questioning glance, he did not say anything. She did not even need to nod at his question on whether she realized what it was, and he relaxed a little as if to say he would follow her lead in the matter.
"You can call me Archer." He said, his tone of voice not quite hostile but still a far cry from anything even resembling polite. Artoria blinked just as much as everybody else present did at his gruffness; she was seeing new sides to Shirou just as they were. But she took his cue and continued with her own introduction.
"And I am Saber." She smiled as she spoke, which obviously worked to relax the three. There was a certain pride she could take in that moniker, despite how loosely it was truly tied to her. She had fought and fallen in love while bearing that name, bled in battle and in love, been brought low and risen to even greater heights than in her life. While she might have found hiding her identity a disagreeable but necessary act in a Holy Grail War, now she bore it with a smile.
The three stared, not quite sure what to make of this new pair of Servants. One of them was a young woman clad in a pristine white dress and armor, her golden hair hanging freely and wielding a golden sword with overwhelming power. She looked like she couldn't have been a day older than 15, for her svelte figure and short stature. The other was a man with red hair, wearing black military pants with attached armored boots and a sleeveless shirt that also seemed to function as armor, capable of immobilizing a Servant in an instant with his ranged attacks.
Yet despite his introduction by class and his previous performance, he seemed to carry no weapons. Had he put them away like the knight had, before jumping out? The combination of archaism and futurism made them seem like an unlikely pair, yet somehow they seemed to fit next to each other like puzzle pieces.
The first among the three to introduce himself was that lone man. "I'm Fujimaru Ritsuka, it's good to meet you; you came in the nick of time."
That seemed to break the ice, as the shield carrying girl with short hair rushed to introduce herself as well. "Ah, I am Mash Kyrielight. A pleasure to make your acquaintance."
The last women looked at the proceedings with her arms crossed, until she realized that everyone was staring at her which made her flush a little. "Ah-hem! I am Olga-Marie Animusphere. Director of Chaldea and the leade—"
"Chaldea?" Shirou frowned and before the woman could continue he spoke his mind. "You're Babylonians?"
"Babylonians?" Artoria seemed to react to that, suddenly warily looking at the three.
"Ah no." Shirou cleared his throat, looking at the three who seemed quite confused by his question. "Not that kind of Babylonian. The Chaldeans usually refer to a group of semi-nomadic Babylonians during the 6th century BCE. Though sometimes in the Bible and among the ancient Greeks texts, the term Chaldean was synonymous with Babylonians in general. They were supposedly great astronomers and astrologers. There's a several thousand year gulf from that guy, so I doubt they're related." Shirou hastily elaborated as he turned to Artoria, having noticed her hackles being raised. "Well, assuming they are the Chaldeans I'm thinking of, anyhow."
"Oh, well, that's good." She relaxed at that, letting out a relieved sigh, much to the trio's continued confusion.
"Ah... No, that's not quite..." The white-haired woman seemed to be completely nonplussed by their reaction and not sure what to say as they looked at her inquisitively. "We are a security organization focused on the study of science and magecraft founded by Marisbilly Animusphere, and well..."
She trailed off as the two strangers stared at her. Shirou blinked as the name finally registered. "Animusphere? Of the Astronomy department at the Clock Tower?"
"Yes! That's right." Olga-Marie seemed to rejoice at being recognized, however tangentially, as she nodded at his words. "We were attempting to begin operations when we were all forcefully rayshifted into this Singularity."
"Rayshift?" Artoria tilted her head at the unfamiliar word.
"Singularity?" Shirou did the same at the second unusual term.
Olga-Marie stared at them, confused for a moment before she seemed to understand. "Oh, of course. As you are participants in this grail war, you would not know of the Singularity, or its implications."
"Ah, no." Artoria shook her head and Shirou did the same.
"We aren't participating in this grail war. Or, at least we aren't." Shirou continued and Artoria nodded at his words, turning thoughtful as she remembered the defeated Rider's words that hinted at the existence of another Saber here. She hoped that they would meet herself in good order; hopefully the other she had some idea what was going on here and they could work together to solve it.
Of course, to the others Shirou's words made no sense. They blinked at him before turning to each other, looking to see if anyone understood what he meant.
"But well, we're familiar with the area even if we don't know what happened here." Shirou said, raising a hand to motion at the burning buildings all around them.
"Oh." Ritsuka butted in. "Does that mean you know about the grail war that was supposed to happen here?"
Olga-Marie gave him a glare, before noticing that Shirou and Artoria both nodded. "No wait, that's impossible. The Fuyuki grail war in 2004 was won by my father, I have read the reports he left. You couldn't have been in the grail war, you don't fit any of the descriptions—" She suddenly stopped talking, turning to look at where the Rider had perished. "Is this an alternate war entirely? It must have diverged even before the summonings, in that case. But what caused the Singularity?"
Shirou and Artoria looked at each other, not sure what to make of the young magus' words but neither feeling inclined to note that they had won their grail war together. Still, they had to wonder exactly what they had managed to wander into.
It was at that moment that a small white furry creature made its presence known on Ritsuka's shoulder, with a mewling "kyu~ui" sound.
The three from Chaldea did not seem surprised with the creature's appearance, as Mash merely smiled and with a gentle hand petted it while calling it, "Fou-kun" with a soft voice. Artoria's and Shirou's reactions differed from the Chaldean's greatly however.
"A clawing cat?" Artoria was surprised by the creature, but merely on the level that she had not expected one to appear here somehow.
"Clawing cat? Do you mean Fou-kun?" Mash asked in a curious voice, tilting her head to the side enough to reveal her both eyes from the cover of her fringe. "I thought you were a squirrel..." The Shielder said, lifting up the small beast gently as she took a thoughtful closer look, a small frown creasing her face.
"Ah, my old mentor had a familiar that looked very similar. It was a wild beast that had been named the Clawing Cat, that haunted the isle of Anglesey and was to have killed and eaten nine score warriors who had invaded its territory." Artoria explained, looking curiously at the little creature which looked back at her with equal curiosity. "Are you perhaps the same one I met long ago, little one?"
"Kyuu~ui?" Fou turned his little head as it looked at Artoria curiously.
"Well, perhaps not. Anyhow, I am pleased to make your acquaintance as well, Fou." Artoria smiled and bowed with one hand held before her chest. She struck the very image of a noble knight in that instant, despite her introductions being to a mere creature small enough to ride on the Shielder's shoulder. Fou made a mewling sound in response, which made her smile as she straightened up once more.
Shirou stood to the side, with his arms crossed and his brows furrowed as he stared at the little creature. Noticing that Artoria was staring at him, as was everyone else, he cleared his throat. "No, I was merely reminded of something else for a moment. But I must be mistaken." Artoria looked puzzled at his words, but both chose to let it be as Shirou continued. "Though I must say it looks more like a small Canidae of some kind, rather than a cat. Or a squirrel. Of course, trying to classify a magical beast by mundane means is meaningless." He said, shaking his head. But seeing as how Artoria merely raised an eyebrow at him as her stare intensified, he cleared his throat to try again. "And it's very nice to meet you, Fou."
Artoria nodded satisfied, Mash and Ritsuka wondered at the closeness of the two before looking at each other, both having having the exact same thought regarding the peculiar chemistry between the two.
Shirou cleared his throat. "Shall we get back to the main subject?"
"Yes. If this is a grail war, should we make for the Temple to investigate?" Artoria asked, looking up at Shirou.
Shirou frowned and looked at the others. "It should be location of the grail if this is 2004, so it is the reasonable place to start. But first, we should resolve our relation to these people."
Mash blinked at his words, before they registered and she tensed. She realized that while they had been saved by these two, no words to assure safety or peace had yet been exchanged. Merely introductions and some information had been shared between two parties of strangers.
But just as the other two of the trio were about to realize the sudden tension that had sprouted, Artoria dispelled it by slapping Shirou in the chest with the back of her hand. "Stop that, Shirou. Teasing people is not polite."
The taller of the two looked away, not quite abashed but at least having the decency to hide his amusement at the Chaldean's reactions.
She gave him another glare, before turning back to look at the confused three Chaldeans. "If you will have us, I would propose an alliance. To protect and safeguard one another until the cause of this disaster has been investigated and solved."
She extended a gauntlet-clad hand for a handshake, and Mash seemed to be surprised she was the first one Artoria had extended a hand to. She turned to look at the two others, who looked at each other before nodding to her. She blushed, grabbing the hand and nodding back with a resolute gaze.
They all exchanged handshakes, even Shirou though he pretended to be annoyed by the formality, until Shirou came to Ritsuka. As they shook hands, he noticed the markings on the other's hand. "So you're the Master?"
"Ah, umm. I suppose..." The shorter man, with black hair and wearing a uniform consisting of black slacks and a white jacket, seemed half unsure about his own answer. Shirou frowned and then gave a sideways glance at Mash, who seemed to stand a bit straighter under his scrutiny.
"That's no good as an answer." Shirou said, turning to look at Saber who nodded at his words. "It's alright to be weak. It's alright to be scared. But you can't be uncertain of what you are; as a Master your Servant will rely on you to cover their back."
Ritsuka was taken aback by Shirou's forceful words, but noticed that Mash was looking at them and gave her a glance. Their eyes locked for a moment and she nodded at him. He wasn't sure what she was nodding to, but he felt like he understood something as well in that gesture. He looked back at the taller man, this time with a more determined look in his eyes.
"Yes. I am Mash's Master."
Shirou nodded at that, satisfied with the resolve he displayed. Of course, Artoria had her own piece to say as well, as she stepped forward.
"Good. Now, you must make sure not to get involved in the fighting yourself. That is the Servant's role." She said smiling, turning a sideways glance at Shirou who remained pointedly quiet.
"Hmph... I don't know what kind of incompetent Master would try and barge in on a fight between Heroic Spirits, but I trust that Fujimaru is not that foolish." Olga-Marie spoke, crossing her arms with a huff. Shirou looked like he wanted to say something, but knew better, which only made Artoria smile even wider.
Shirou uncrossed his arms and huffed. "But conversely, as the Master, it is your job to be on top of things. This includes your Servant. You are the strategist, the tactician. I do not know about Mash, but I was unlucky enough to be saddled with such a headstrong and willful Servant that they ran off in the black of night to assault head on an enemy fortress without telling anyone about it."
The tall archer raised his hands as he shook his head in a gesture of exasperation.
"A Servant like that does sound like a handful. I will make sure not to trouble Sempai like that." Mash said, her eyes wide as she nodded.
Beside them, Artoria pouted and shot a glare at Shirou who kept his face carefully neutral as if he hadn't said or done anything unusual. But he knew he had scored there. Seeing as no comeback was forthcoming from his partner, he moved to continue the discussion on.
"But, we should get a move on. Staying here will accomplish nothing." Shirou said, dispelling the joviality of the moment before as he turned serious. He turned to face Ritsuka and Olga-Marie and said nothing, merely communicating that he was waiting on their decision.
Olga-Marie prevaricated for a moment clearly looking for something to say and Ritsuka looked thoughtfully at Shirou. He was about to say something, when his on his wrist a thin metal band began to beep.
A second later the ground next to Olga-Marie lit up and a projected image, half-transparent and glowing with blue light, appeared showing an man's upper body and face. He was sitting down, wearing a somewhat similar uniform to the Chaldeans, with shoulder-length hair set up in a ponytail leaving his messy hair sprouting in every which way.
"Director, it appears you've made some allies. What a relief!"
Shirou and Artoria blinked at the new arrival into the conversation.
"What is it, Romani?" Olga-Marie said as she crossed her arms, half-glaring at the man. The projected image seemed to shrink a little under her eyes, but quickly regained himself.
"Ah, well. It concerns our two new arrivals." Shirou and Artoria perked up at that, as did the others. "Well, at first I figured they were Servants from this war, but that does not seem to be the case." Dr. Roman paused, glancing at Shirou and Artoria who nodded at his words. "Then I thought that perhaps they were sent by the Counter Force, but given everything going on, I'm not so sure."
"No, we're definitely not with the Counter Force." Shirou said, before anyone else could speak.
"...Yes, well. I don't think they are, anyhow. Because on scanning them it became obvious that neither is even a Servant!" The pony-tailed man spoke, his voice rising in excitement as he finished.
"Huh? How is that possible. Re-do your scans, Romani." Olga-Marie instantly protested. "I can feel their power from here, what else could they possible be?"
"Ah... Now that you mention it, I cannot sense them." Mash interjected.
That took the magus back, as she blinked in confusion. Her eyes shot to Shirou and Artoria and then back to Mash and the projected image of Romani.
"B-but, but what are they then?"
Shirou crossed his arms, as he tilted his head while affixing the confused director with a stare. "Does it really matter?"
"I think we can trust them. They haven't given us any reason not to, I mean." Ritsuka weighed in, not quite understanding what the big issue was.
"They seem like some type of Elementals, but they're quite distinct from any of the types I've seen before. Not quite fairies, but perhaps related to them..." Dr. Roman mused as he scratched his jaw. "The world is a big place, there are lots of mysterious things even I don't know about around, huh."
He laughed lightly, but stopped as the director glared at him. The white-haired magus narrowed her eyes as she looked at the two, not sure what to make of them now. She looked like she wanted to say something, but Shirou turned away from her. Clicked his tongue and made a noise of dissatisfaction as he looked at the horizon.
The others' gazes followed his and they noticed a red dot in the sky rapidly approaching them. Mash reacted instantly and jumped to the fore to intercept the projectile.
"Incoming!" The shieldbearer shouted as she slammed down her shield. "Sempai, get behind me!"
The Master, clearly familiar with these arrows from before, did not hesitate a moment to get behind the armored girl and the director wasted no time in hurrying behind him. Shirou and Artoria merely jumped back out of their immediate vicinity, judging that the arrow was not potent enough to harm them.
A half-second later, the arrow split into two, then four, eight... until a veritable hail of arrows descended down upon the great shield like a torrential downpour. The maiden of the shield bore the assault with grim determination as the constant stream of arrows struck the shield with enough force to light up the entire street by the sparks and to shatter and craterize the pavement for meters around them.
Another second later, it stopped just as abruptly as it had begun.
"He's 12 kilometers to the west, just noticed us. That was a probing attack; a jab. At that distance it's futile to try and get anything resembling an accurate shot through average means." Shirou commented, as if he was criticizing the shot itself, as if it had nothing to do with him at all. He sighed as he scratched his jaw, "I knew we should have gotten to concealment. Perhaps under the bridge, or in one of those houses. I must be getting rusty to have forgotten something so basic."
"You noticed the attack before I did. There is no blame to be had here on your part, Shirou." Artoria said with a smile, her hands grasping the hilt of an invisible sword in her usual low guard.
"Archer, if you recall, is what I am called. Saber, we should probably get moving. See if you can convince the magus to trust us." Shirou gave her a mock glare, though knew it didn't really matter. He knew who had shot at them and as soon as they were seen by him their concealed identities would be shot as well. Which meant, keeping out of direct line of sight within 6 kilometers of the enemy was a priority for now.
The Chaldean trio looked shook up and alert, but unharmed as they had all been protected by the shield. As Mash noticed that Shirou and Artoria were unharmed, she let out a sigh of relief even as her eyes darted back to the horizon where another red dot could be seen rising.
Shirou scowled as he walked slowly, with calm and unhurried steps, to stand in front of Mash. "That's enough of that."
A bow appeared in his hands so quickly that it almost seemed as if it had been there all along. Yet Mash realized instantly that it was not something he had kept on his person, and then materialized as Servants were capable of doing. Rather, he had brought it about through some other means, which only served to further deepen his mysteriousness in her eyes.
"Huh?" The sword that followed, appearing in his right hand served to catch Olga-Marie attention and confusion as well, as she gaped. The question of what he was doing was fresh on her lips, ready to spring forth when he placed the pommel of the sword on the string and pulled back. The creaking of the bow would have made everyone present realize just how utterly ridiculous the poundage of the bow had to be, but the sword stole their attentions entirely too well for that thought to even occur.
As he had pulled the bow, the sword had twisted and warped, becoming longer and narrower as the point of balance was shot forward, the point of drag pulled back and the aerodynamics of the projectile were enhanced. The jaws of the magi present dropped at the swiftness of the action as the drawing, aiming and warping had all been accomplished in the space of a single breath. They had time to blink once, before the new arrow had been loosed.
The release of the arrow caused a small shockwave and the sonic boom of its departure was unmistakable as they could feel their clothes and hair be knocked back by the loosing of the projectile.
The Chaldean's had time to blink a second time, before the sudden explosion of the two projectiles colliding in mid-air shook the air itself even all the way back where they stood. Another second later, the shattered remains of the two arrows rained down on the buildings, breaking windows and cracking pavement and walls as molten steel rain.
"You have improved since last I saw you hold a bow. Impressive." Artoria spoke, walking up to him. The taller man blinked, not having expected anyone to comment on his actions. The compliment reached his ears and after a few second registered, causing his ears to blush though his face remained stoic.
"Yes, well. I practiced." He cleared his throat, as much to collect himself as to distract her from his reaction. He turned to address the Chaldeans, "That should keep him off our backs for a moment. Unexpected things will set back a coward like that until he feels he knows what he's facing against."
Artoria blinked, eyeing him queerly. "You recognized our assailant from this distance?"
"He did? That's incredible!" Ritsuka spoke as he stood up from where he had been behind Mash. "Archers are incredible, huh." He said to Mash, who nodded in agreement as she eyed Shirou with wide eyes as well.
Shirou blinked, clearly not having expected their reactions either. He seemed a bit bothered by all the attention he was receiving, actually. "Ah, no. I just..." He cleared his throat again. "Anyhow. We should get moving, before he decides to attack again. He was shooting from the high school, which is up the mountain and one of the few taller buildings on the Miyama-side of town. He's probably guarding the Temple, which is a bit further North from the school. But if we stay here, he'll go around to the south and flank us alongside the mountains."
The two nodded and Olga-Marie did not offer any protests, as she continued to eye Shirou and Artoria quietly. As the Chaldean Master and Servant looked inquiringly at the Director, she finally relented and nodded as well.
They began by following the river south, hoping to avoid detection by the enemy Archer and making sure to avoid any skirmishes with the skeletons as they all deemed it a waste of time. During this time as Shirou, Artoria and Mash all kept vigilant eyes out for hostiles, Ritsuka chose to approach Shirou.
"Archer, do you mind if I ask you a few questions?"
Shirou blinked, glancing at the black-haired master who had sidled up to him as they walked. While it was a distraction, Shirou felt that he could handle a conversation without too much trouble as they moved. "What brought this on? Well, I don't mind. Your distrust of us is natural."
"Huh? No, no. That's not it all." Ritsuka hastily tried to deny that and Shirou had to chuckle, showing that it hadn't been a serious accusation. "It's just that... You were a Master before, right? And I'm kind of new at this. I was thrust into this suddenly and I don't want to make any mistakes..."
As the youth gave a sideways glance to Mash who was dutifully watching their surroundings, Shirou nodded and made a noise of acknowledgment.
"Well, you're already doing pretty well. Understanding that you're working with veterans and experts will get you a long way. Of course, I'm not saying you should kowtow and humble yourself to please them, but understanding that you have a vast pool of learning, knowledge and experience to draw on is a good first step." Shirou began and paused to make sure that Ritsuka was listening, and as the younger of the two nodded at the red-head, he continued.
"From my experience, and it is probably safe to assume the safe here as well, is that a Holy Grail War will have seven Servants. Usually you won't get any free information, so make sure to treasure every nugget you get. With that Rider's defeat, we can assume that there are still six other threats remaining, or we could assume that we are included in such a count and that only three enemies remain for us to defeat. Though I doubt that is the case, and it is always better to assume the worst." Shirou spoke as they continued walking, his voice acquiring tone that suited perfectly for such lectures, as if he had done so on many an occasion before. "The Servants you generally face will fall into one of seven classes, but of course exceptions exist as well."
"Right, I remember those. Saber, Archer, Lancer, Rider, Berserker, Caster and umm..." Ritsuka nodded, before trailing off.
"And Assassin. They are specialists in surprise attacks and taking out the Master when their guard is lowered, so make sure to keep an eye out for them. And well, Saber already gave one of the basic rules of the Master-Servant relationship earlier. Heroic Spirits are beings so beyond the average man or woman that there is no place for you there, unless you're willing to forfeit your life." Shirou stared hard at this, to absolutely make sure that the young Master understood. Shirou was certain that Ritsuka had already understood this perfectly, but it bore repeating. Only when Ritsuka nodded emphatically to show that he understood, did Shirou continued. "Of course, this does not mean that you are meaningless or simply an accessory to you Servant in all of this.
"Look at your right hand and tell me what you see there." The Chaldean looked confused for a second, before bringing up his right hand which was marked by the crest formed by the three command seals.
"These markings? The, uh, command spells?"
Shirou nodded, "Do you know what they are for?"
Ritsuka blinked before frowning, after which he shook his head to indicate that he didn't. Shirou sighed, but made a shrug as if to show that it couldn't be helped under the circumstances.
"They are, simply put, what makes a Master a Master. What gives you the top position to the bottom of the Servant. Did you consider how an average human being—more or less, anyhow—is supposed to work together with a superhuman being? Especially ones which might have their own strong proclivities, wants and tendencies?" Shirou raised a hand, showing a single finger. "For example, assuming they chafe under your command and were to desire your death." He raised another. "Or were running out of magical energy and chose to sustain themselves by feeding upon human beings..." And a third finger joined the two first, "Or even something a small as an argument regarding policy or basic tactics? Assuming Mash were not inclined to listen to you, what recourse would you be left with?"
Ritsuka's mouth dropped as he stared at Shirou, before glancing at Mash who had noticed their discussion and was now intently listening in, though making sure to hide her attention. At least well enough for the Master to think she hadn't been paying attention.
"What the command spell does—just as the name implies, helpfully—is give you the authority to issue one nigh-absolute command to your contracted Servant." Shirou's eyes acquired a slightly wicked gleam, though no one noticed it in time. "This could range from preventing any of the previously mentioned examples from occurring to even, say...
"Having Mash share your bed for a night."
The Master and Servant suddenly both stilled completely, neither even so much as blinking for a second. Then they shared glances and realized they had both been listening in, and then they imagined. The result was as predictable as if was amusing for Shirou, as the red-head chuckled mirthfully at the two blushing and stuttering youths. Even Artoria seemed slightly amused, despite her stoic and disciplinarian surface seeming to rebuke him as she walked up to the Shielder.
"No, I'd never—" Ritsuka began, but then turned to look at Mash who turned even more crimson as he looked at her, "I mean, I'd—"
"In that sense, you have an extraordinarily good relationship, and need not worry about this overmuch." Shirou continued on, certain that Master and Servant both would be more than happy to not linger on the subject. Though, they perked up at his evaluation of them as he spoke. "Thus, you should consider them a single-use power up, rather than a means of control. You have three of them at your disposal, so under the right circumstances you as the Master may issue a decisive order and turn the tide of battle at the critical juncture."
"...Something like, 'Win', Right? Or should it be more specific?" Ritsuka realized quite quickly the potential as Shirou finished talking. At the question, Shirou nodded and the Master turned pensive.
"In that sense, your role in staying outside of the heat of battle becomes a strength. The Servant battles on the front as the Master at the rear takes in all the information on the battlefield, considering everything and planning a path forward. Your job is to keep your head cool at all times and to miss nothing; to understand everything you see and to find the critical timing, the important detail, the vital facts... Understand?"
"...Yeah. Or, I think I do." Ritsuka said after a moment. Shirou nodded, satisfied and turned silent once more.
Behind them, Olga-Marie huffed out aloud. "That much is obvious, what kind of Master wouldn't know that much?"
Noticing Ritsuka blink and look a bit sheepish, Shirou turned look over his shoulder at the white-haired woman. "Indeed. And what kind of Directer would be unaware of that subordinate's lacking education?"
Olga-Marie blinked, before noticing Ritsuka and then suddenly flushing with anger. She was about to retort, when Shirou clicked his tongue in annoyance, for the second time that day. "Tch, inconsiderate bastard, aiming for my head the moment I look away. Or rather, should I say... how painfully predictable!"
The others barely had time to notice the red dot in the sky, when Shirou had already turned around and reacted.
The bow and sword-arrow were readied and launched once more in the space of single blink of the eye and a second later a raucous clash of supersonic steel hitting supersonic steel rung out, shaking the air itself and an instant later the arrow that had been aimed at them exploded in the air. The detonation, a ball of pure destructive force exploded in mid-air and the resulting shockwave hit them all the way where they stood, despite the vast distance from the arrows' collision.
"Wha—?!" Ritsuka had barely time to utter as he tried to rub out the spots from his eyes from having stared directly at the explosion. He could barely see from the corner of his eye Shirou lowering the bow.
A second sword-arrow had been launched after the first, but the action had been so rapid that they hadn't noticed the second projectile until a second, smaller mid-air explosion rocked the air further away in the horizon; Shirou had counter-attacked and the attack had been neutralized just the same way he had done to the first attacked aimed at them.
"Hmph..." Shirou looked more annoyed than anything else, before looking at Ritsuka who was looking at the horizon where the second explosion had occurred. The temple that could be seen in the distance and the roads and streets leading up to it were along the way from where they had been sniped at. The buildings along the way were low, the streets many and narrow making for a maze-like deathzone against this skilled sniper. If they continued advancing forward here, towards the Temple, the would have to continue moving in a straight line against the enemy Archer. As Ritsuka finally seemed to have reached a pause in his thoughts, Shirou prompted him with a question, "What'll it be, young Master?"
The Chaldean looked surprised at being deferred to, but held back as he realized it was posed as a serious question despite the teasing way the Archer had spoken. He considered it for a moment, before speaking, but did not tarry or hesitate overmuch.
"Director and I are slowing us down and with the lack of cover, we're like stationary targets in a shooting gallery. And the closer we get, the easier it will be for that guy... Archer, you can move faster and keep the enemy Archer occupied while alone, right?" Ritsuka spoke and Shirou nodded, as much in response to the question as in approval to the steel in those eyes. "Good, then do that. You said the enemy Archer was a cautious type, right? Which means he wouldn't be attacking us now unless he had some kind of plan or trump card; be careful. Mash; Saber; Director, lend me you ears."
Shirou nodded and gave Artoria a parting look, as she nodded to him to say that she would protect these three. Giving a slight smile, Shirou nodded back in acknowledgment. It was a strange turnaround, where he was charging at the front and she was covering the rear. It was the way he had once wanted it, when he had been a green Master. But now, he would have preferred to fight alongside his Saber as he had done at the end of that War.
"Ah..." Shirou noticed something that was amiss as he looked at Artoria. His Saber blinked as he hesitated a moment, turning to face him, the questioning clear in her eyes. "It's just, your hair..."
She blinked, as she realized what he meant. Her blonde hair hang freely over her shoulders, held up by nothing and swaying in the wind. There even was a small blade of grass tangled in behind her ear, back from when they had been sleeping together not so long before. He wondered if the dress and the ribbon that she had used before were something that she did not make out of her magical energy or if she had merely forgotten about it.
He shook his head to shake those thoughts aside and stepped forward, raising his hands and taking away the blade of grass. The Chaldean's had just noticed he hadn't noticed yet and were beginning to wonder what he was up to, but he paid them no heed. It was the merest effort of will to weave the black ribbon as he gathered her hair in his hands. She looked up to him, her mouth slightly parted as he bundled up her hair into a high pony-tail and then made a bow of the ribbon to hold it up.
Shirou took a half-step back, lowering his hands. "Sorry, it's not much."
Artoria shook her head with a small smile, one hand by her hair as she felt the ribbon as the other she held pressed against his chest. "No, thank you. It is... More than sufficient." Not pushing him away, but simply pressed against him as if to confirm his existence before her. "I shall treasure it."
For a moment time froze for them, as they gazed into each others' eyes. Through the hand on his chest, Shirou felt a warmth spreading into his body. The sensation was almost intoxicating, as he gasped. Then Shirou cleared his throat and looked away.
Duty waits for no man. He bent his knees, his breathing turning a touch deeper and power coursed through his veins, his muscles and his bones, before he shot off like a loosed arrow. Not quite the shooting star that his beloved Saber made, but still a distinctly superhuman figure as he leaped from housetop to hanging power-line, leaping off and gliding through the air with supreme ease.
Between the three leaps he had performed, he already had to launch three arrows, all of which had been shot down or shot down another in turn. He couldn't see his enemy yet, but the magically charged projectiles essentially glowed against the dark backdrop of the lifeless night sky allowing his enhanced senses to pick to them up with ease. And as the trajectories of arrows were becoming so familiar to him already, he could make a fairly good estimate of the other's position by now.
Shirou made to flank the other, avoiding the direct route they had as a group treaded before. Assuming Ritsuka made for the coast to make distance to the enemy Archer and swing around through the North, by flanking this way Shirou was also presenting himself between them.
While it was easier to hit the incoming arrows head on—as despite the smaller target it presented when faced head on, the lack of having to adjust to the travel of the arrow in timing and trajectory made it a monumentally simpler task—he had no trouble shooting down from the side, even without relying on any of his more elaborate tricks.
By now, the enemy Archer had already changed his target from the quartet Shirou had left behind to the interloping bowman who kept shooting his arrows down. Of course, this didn't mean that no arrows were aimed at them, it merely meant that the ones that were shot that way were meant to be more of a distraction than a serious attempt at their lives.
Judging by the angle, the enemy Archer didn't need to adjust more than 43 degrees between his two targets, while Shirou had to do turn over 67 degrees. 67 degrees was a minimum estimate, assuming he reacted as quickly as possible, as the longer it took to react the more he would have to turn around. Of course, had Shirou been advancing straight towards the enemy Archer this wouldn't have been a problem aside from the height correction. But that was the obvious intent and Shirou sensed a trap there, thus he took a slightly rounder path which afforded him better awareness of his surroundings and secured his allies' flank.
He ignored the skeletons which rattled their "weapons" at the streetlight he was standing on as he readied another four arrows in the space of a second. Shirou could tell neither was really flexing their muscle yet, but at this point both seemed to have concluded that they wanted to play this out as a game of wits and cunning.
After the first arrow, a rather familiar fake helix, no more overt powershots were attempted. For one, they were much easier to notice and to subsequently shoot down. For another, they took longer to make and in the end only functioned to waste magical energy. Even the subsequent lightshows and collateral destruction barely served as a distraction.
No, this was a duel of small moves, of efficient attacks, of mind games and skill, between two marksmen who knew the value of patience and tactics.
Already, the shots aimed at the Chaldean group and Artoria had ceased. No doubt due to them moving out and the enemy Archer losing sight of them. Shirou smirked as he readied another arrow.
Using the darkness, the cloud cover, the smoke, shooting several identical arrows followed by one with varying arcing in arrow trajectory rapidly to catch him off guard, hiding an arrow behind another larger arrow, using the wind and the spin of the arrow to cause curvature, aiming at nothing at all or aiming at nothing at all and then using a second arrow to change the trajectory suddenly...
A dozen ploys; a dozen counter-ploys; a good three hundred arrows had already been loosed on Shirou's part, yet none had found their mark. For that matter he hadn't even seen his opponent, who seemed to be moving to pull in Shirou.
Honestly, were it under any other circumstance, Shirou might have gone so far as to admit that he having fun.
Artoria, or Saber as she was once again known as, leaped over the car with graceful ease. She made sure to bend her knees as she landed, to make certain the impact was not too jarring for the magus being carried in her arms.
Olga-Marie had complained at first, but before Artoria's knightly charms the woman's resistances had all but melted away. As soon as the magus' attention was elsewhere, Saber felt her smile turn a touch melancholy. The women were completely different, yet somehow Artoria had been reminded of another woman she had once protected, who had also had hair the color of the purest snow.
Behind them, the Servant who had put away the familiar Shield so that she could carry her Master, was following Artoria as quickly as she could. Of course, the shield was much more familiar to her in another form, but there was no way she would not recognize it anyhow. The young woman was a steadfast and respectable warrior for all that she could see and judge, but still Artoria could not deny her curiosity.
"You appear short of breath, Mash. Do you need to rest?" Artoria asked as Mash caught up once more. She could see from the younger girl's appearance that a pause was in order, which all but confirmed the knight's niggling suspicions about something being off with the Shielder. A regular Servant would not have tired this easily.
She had the strength and valor of any of Artoria's knights, but her body did not hold up to the continued strain. Almost as if she was not used to her own strength or had never before had to strain herself this much.
"Ah..." Mash looked up to the other, between panting breaths. The shieldmaiden realized the question was asked just as much out of curiosity as it was out of concern for her. She felt ashamed for a moment; for her inability to get her breathing under control; for being unable to keep up with the Saber; for slowing her sempai down so much.
"Stand straight and hold a rhythm to your breathing, do not attempt to breathe more deeply for now." Artoria said and Mash realized that the knight had lain down the magus she had been carrying as she walked up to the Master-Servant pair.
"No... I can, keep going..." Mash insisted, as she straightened up while getting her hands better under Ritsuka's legs. The master was being carried piggyback, which while efficient and quick had garnered more than a token protest at first.
"Mash Kyrielight, put down your Master at once and rest, this is an order from your Director." Olga-Marie joined the worried knight, speaking with a commanding tone as she crossed her arms. As the Shielder tried to open her mouth to utter another protest, the Director continued. "Your Master needs a rest as much as you do, so stop being so obstinate. Taking care of your stamina is just as important as being able to press on, depending on the time."
Mash blanked at those words, until she realized that her sempai had not spoken up despite being on her back. She could suddenly feel the shallow, rapid breathing of her Master and almost dropped him in her panic.
"Calm, Mash." Saber spoke, catching the Shielder's attention as she helped get down the new Master. "He is merely tired. I believe he is being as stubborn as you are. It was a fine idea on his part to emphasize haste, but we mustn't tire ourselves overmuch."
"Mmm, well." Olga-Marie spoke, as she took out a small box from her pocket. She opened it to reveal dried fruits and other snacks. "He's having trouble adjusting to the Servant bond; it will pass." She placed a hand on Ritsuka's forehead as she forced a piece of fruit into his mouth. The Master seemed half surprised, as if he had just been awoken, as she stuffed his mouth full of the fruit. "Chew." She ordered and he obliged, if a bit slowly.
"Is he alright? Can we continue or shall we make for shelter?" Artoria asked.
"He's just a bit tired. Or should I surprised, as his body and circuits are only just now beginning to adjust. He hasn't run out of magical energy and there are no complications that I can see, which is good. He should be fine if he rests for a couple of minutes." The witch spoke, before sitting down by the bus-station they had stopped by. There was a small roofed bench, with half-burned time table for the buses and trains, along with a melted trash bin that looked like some sort of disfigured modern art piece.
The quartet settled down, the youngest two of the group with weak protests, despite their obvious exhaustion. The magus and the knight, both more experienced and level-headed, overruled those objections with ruthless pragmatism as they forced Ritsuka and Mash to sit down and rest for a while.
"We have made it a good way already, but since we lack proper food and water we must pace ourselves accordingly. Hurrying needlessly will only tire us out before the battle. We must make haste slowly." Saber spoke, her hands on her hips as she stared down the two seated youths who still looked like they wanted to continue, and finally after her glowering did they stop complaining.
As both of their complexions improved after a few minutes—and noticing the change in each other, as much as in themselves—the two quieted down and stopped fidgeting. But as the silence stretched, Artoria found that she could no longer quell her questions.
"Mash." She spoke up and the girl perked at the name, almost as if expecting the order to resume their march. "I do not mean to pry, but... Could you tell me how you came across that shield? For all the skill that you wield it with, it is obviously not a familiar thing to you."
"Hold on. You still haven't told us who you are; why should we share anything about ourselves when you clearly do not trust us in return?" Olga-Marie jumped in, before Mash could answer.
Artoria nodded; she did not begrudge Olga-Marie's words, but as Shirou had decided for them to hide their identities, she did not feel it proper to reveal her true name either. At least, not without informing him first.
"No, umm... Director, it is alright... I shouldn't have hidden it, from any of you..." Mash spoke up and the magus turned back to glare at the shielder. "I was created by Chaldea, for the sole purpose of harnessing a Heroic Spirit's power. But it was a failure, until now that is... But because of that, I do not know who it is that saved me..."
She looked downcast; almost ashamed over her admission. Olga-Marie made a sound of annoyance as she kicked a loose stone, muttering "I knew it..." to herself.
To the side, the still half-peaked Ritsuka seemed to be considering Mash's words with supreme interest as he stared at her.
Artoria however nodded to herself with a smile. "I see, it is quite like him. He has chosen to side with you, personally, Mash."
The shielder looked up, confused at the older hero's words. "Wha-what do you mean? You know who...?"
"Simply put, being possessed by a Heroic Spirit is no small feat, nor does it happen without great strain and cost. I can guess as to what hardships you must have faced to even be able to bear his spirit and remain yourself. Even needlessly telling you here could harm you, I fear.
"It would not be unusual for your personality; your spirit; your self itself, to have collapsed under the strain of merging with an existence like that. That is exactly why he did not tell you anything, so that in offering you only the smallest fraction of his whole, you could make use of his powers without being blown away like a candle in a storm. —No, rather, I believe he wishes for you to discover yourself before you receive his full power, so that you may match him and stand by your own power as his equal." Artoria placed a hand on the shielder's shoulder, conferring all her feelings through that touch. "If he has chosen to support you, then I have no doubts regarding your worth and your character, Mash."
"Ah— ah, that is..." Mash swallowed nervously, as she looked up at the Saber. Despite her greater height she felt very much smaller than her at this moment. "T-then, what should I do?"
"Simply stand proudly, with your back straight and act in a forthright and true manner in all things. Always be someone, who can look back at herself and hold her head up high with pride and with honor." Artoria said. "But worry not. As a fellow knight, of both him and you, I know that you will have no trouble doing so."
The shielder nodded, unable to speak as she looked down. But there was a small smile on her face as she placed a gauntlet-clad hand on her chest, feeling the warmth in her chest. She nodded again, this time with more conviction. "Thank you, Saber-san. I will."
"Regarding your Noble Phantasm, however..." Artoria said, her face turning thoughtful as she frowned. "It will not work very well unless you understand how it works. But I do not wish to trample upon his decision... I shall simply give you a small piece of advice on how to use that shield."
"Ah...?" Mash looked surprised, but nodded with eager anticipation.
"When you call out the true name to wield the power of that shield, think of a place you wish to protect. Of your home; of the place of your ideals and your hopes; your dreams and your future. Let those fill you and that shield will undoubtedly answer your prayers."
"...Huh?" Mash looked a little bit unsure, nodding hesitatingly at the vague words the Saber spoke, but making sure to engrave them to memory nonetheless.
"For now, I think we have rested long enough." Artoria spoke, turning to look at the Master. A lot of color had returned to Ritsuka's face, as he still chewed on individual pieces of fruit almost mechanically as he seemed to be deep in thought.
Noticing Saber's attention and the words registering after a second, the Chaldean nodded and stood up. He seemed almost surprised with his own condition as he did not feel woozy or weak at all, any longer.
"I believe we should travel the rest of the way at a more sedate pace. We have cleared the immediate vicinity and the enemy Archer is still held busy." As she spoke Artoria looked to the south, noting the continued flashes and distant sounds of arrows clashing. The two Archers had slowed down considerably, now shooting less than an arrow every 10 seconds where before they had shot dozens every second at their most intense. It told them that neither was able to overpower the other, as of yet.
"Will he be fine?" Ritsuka asked, walking up to Saber as she noticed her trailing off. "It's turned into a weird game of hide-and-seek since neither wanted to slug it out or turn it into a stamina match, huh?"
"Indeed. But as long as no one intervenes, that means he ought to be fine even until we have solved the cause of this disaster. He is a reliable man who excels in surpassing himself, he has no need of our worries." Artoria said, closing her eyes and turning away. She looked at the temple they were headed towards; with the sea to her right and the battling Archers to her left, their route to the Holy Grail was secured. As long as they continued advancing along the shoreline, they had one less flank to worry about. "But enough of that, let us move."
The three Chaldeans obliged and soon enough they were on their way again. Their earlier sprint, using the chaos Shirou had caused as cover, had given them enough of a separation that there wasn't a pressing need for speed anymore.
The dark sea, calm and almost unnaturally still, made for a unnerving contrast to the still ablaze and collapsing city. Additionally, there was something about the gray stillness that unsettled them. It was only after having walked for ten minutes, did they begin to realize it was the utter lack of wind.
Usually by the sea it would always blow one way or the other. Yet, here it did not blow at all despite the raging winds inside the city. The constant and undying conflagrations caused the air to whip and rage and by all logic should have caused the air to rise up and to pull in cooler winds from the sea, yet it was utterly still somehow. Almost as if just beyond the dark, mirror-clear horizon the world simply ceased to exist and no more air could be pulled in as cool winds.
Perhaps that sea reminded them of what lay beyond the raging chaos once it settled down; the utter stillness of the death; the void of nothingness which awaited humanity if they failed.
None of them voiced such thoughts aloud as they continued to trudge along silently, on the border between the raging chaos and the absolute stillness. The dancing flames, the skulking shadows, the smoky veil that swirled all about them made the city almost as undecipherable and hazy as the dark ocean and for a moment Ritsuka thought he saw another skeleton warrior looking at him.
"Mash,—" Ritsuka opened his mouth, raising his hand to point out to the collapsed building and to ask for the Shielder's opinion. Mash stood next to him, walking by his side without her shield as she had been looking at the sea with a furrowed brow.
She turned to look at her Master, her line of sight coincidentally also lining up with the shadowed nook Ritsuka had noticed. "—can y—"
"Master!" The rest of his words were drowned out by Mash's yell and she suddenly dived for him and pulled him down to the ground as her shield materialized nigh-instantly. Something small, dark and incredibly fast whizzed past their heads and a second later three metallic impacts jarred against the upraised shield so quickly as to be almost simultaneous.
Saber was the second to react, despite the danger being only aimed at the two Chaldeans. "Ambush!" Her invisible sword was out in an instant and in the next it was upraised above her head as she called out, "Strike Air!" bringing down the sword in a slash that cut through nothing but air.
But no one could have questioned the meaning of her act, as the winds wrapped around her sword unraveled and—as if a great storm had suddenly been conjured into existence—crashed forward with great force. The collapsed house was uprooted by those winds and much debris was sent flying as she struck out at the location from where the attacks had originated.
Placing herself before the white-haired magus—who had only just now realized something had happened, due to the rapidity of the exchange of surprise attack and counterattack—Artoria scanned left and right while still keeping an eye on the collapsed building.
"Mash, Ritsuka!" Olga-Marie shouted, almost running to them before hesitating and realizing that she ought to stay behind the Saber instead. She raised a hand, a gandr materializing on her finger as she aimed over the shoulder of her warding knight, ready to shoot down anything that appeared.
"We're alright...!" A slightly winded voice shouted out. It seemed the worst of the attack was that Mash had landed on top of Ritsuka and knocked out all the air in his lungs.
"Is it the enemy Archer?" Mash asked, holding her shield to and body before her Master, making sure to cover him completely even as she tried to peek around to get a look. None of the attacks had held the weight of his previous assault, when she had first met up with Ritsuka, but given that it had been a ranged surprise attack it did fit a pattern. Perhaps it had been the best he could do at this range while occupied by their Archer?
"No, I do not think so. Could it have been a skeleton warrior? Some wielded bows when I saw them before." Saber spoke, only to notice a large knife lying on the cracked pavement, almost invisible in the night due to its dark color. It was completely different in make from the crude weapons the skeletons had wielded. Moreover, the power, the speed and the timing had been on a level completely beyond what those crude beings had shown to possess. "I believe we are dealing with an Assassin. Well done, foiling such a villain, Mash!"
"Yes!" The Shielder answered as she jumped up, pulling up her Master with her and holding him close to her so as to protect him with her body if another attack came.
"Ah, umm... Mash, you can let go of me now..." Ritsuka weakly protested. The Shielder tore her eyes away from the ruined building and the settling dust, to look at her Master.
Only then did she notice her arm was wrapped around him and pulling him close as he was on his knees. Specifically, holding his head right into the opening in the armor at her waist. She blinked, feeling his hot breath against her naked belly.
Neither panicked, neither flustered, neither got upset. Both were however flushed crimson and as Ritsuka rose up and tried to thank her, they muttered incoherent words at one another, completely unable to look each other in the eye.
"Enough dilly-dallying! We need to move, right now!" Olga-Marie's shout woke both of them out of their stupor and they turned to look at the director. The white-haired magus scowled at them and stomped her foot, still holding her gandr at the ready. "We're sitting ducks here, we need to go!"
"She is right. Mash, grab Ritsuka and let us move." Saber said as she took a step backwards as she released one of her hands from the hilt of her sword and placed her arm around the waist of Olga-Marie. Lifting the other woman easily, while still keeping an eye out, she waited for the other two to comply.
"Ah, yes!" Mash hastened to comply and Ritsuka did not object to the closeness, despite their earlier blushing. Though carrying her Master and her shield at the same time was cumbersome, neither complained.
The four rushed forward, skirting the border between the ocean and the land until the made it to the edge of the city where they began to follow the mountain paths. Even as they left behind the ruined city with its many hide-holes and avenues for ambush, they did not slow down or lower their guards. The forest was just as dangerous, but Artoria was plenty experienced in traveling through the woods to keep them safe.
Finally as they made it to the familiar stairway leading up to the temple, did she stop and turn around. No further attacks had been made against them, as they rushed forward. Mash was panting lightly and even Artoria felt slightly winded after their rush. But neither was as haggard as the two being carried.
Being completely normal humans, magecraft aside, the dash through the forest had been much rougher than the relatively flat pavement. Uneven terrain jolting them, bushes and branches scratching them and the absolute darkness of the foliage in the night, had left them dazed and bruised.
"I'm fine... I'm fine..." Ritsuka assured Mash, as he got his shaky feet beneath him again. Olga-Marie did not even speak up, merely straightening her uniform as she tried to brush out leaves from her hair without swaying too much.
"The temple ahead, regardless of external condition, should be the location of the holy grail." Saber spoke as she peered up the stairs. It seemed that no katana-wielding Assassin lay ahead, which fit with the attack against them previously. Even though they had defeated one familiar Servant, they should not assume all Servants would be the same as in her War, she realized.
"Are you sure? I cannot sense anything." Olga-Marie asked, extending her senses as far as she could.
Artoria blinked, looking back at the magus before she realized she could not feel the overwhelming presence of the grail that she remembered from that last battle. Its vessel had been Illyasviel back then, but the location should not have changed. "...It could also be at other locations, but I am doubtful. The system was made to use specific locations, due to the leylines and other conditions necessary to fuel the grail. Or so I was told, anyhow."
Suddenly, the bracelet that Olga-Marie wore buzzed to life and the projected image of Dr. Roman appeared before them. "Oh wow, this place is incredible! It must have been an amazing place before, spiritually. The leylines are all criss-crossing and the boundary for the temple itself is like a fortress against spirits! Not even a Heroic Spirit could barge in here from the back!"
"Romani, how much of the equipment is still functional?" Olga-Marie asked, crossing her arms almost instinctively at the sight of the man. "Can you spot anything that could be the holy grail here? Or Servants?"
"Yeah, we had some trouble clearing the rubble out, but it works. Mostly, anyhow." Roman laughed, scratching the back of his head as a voice beside him grumbled about 'What we? You just lazed around...' but Roman ignored it sheepishly. "There's a signal for a Servant up ahead, but I think they're underground somehow. There's a lot of interference, so I can't say about any grails being there, but it seems like the place to start."
Olga-Marie frowned at him, but finally nodded before looking at Saber and Mash. "Keep your guard up. We'll try to talk, but failing that we'll just beat some answers out of whoever we find."
The two knights nodded, both in approval as in understanding.
Ritsuka turned around, hesitating for a moment before the temple steps as he looked back to the town behind them. Despite the flames still raging, the town had taken on a calmer appearance somehow.
"It's just... Whoever attacked us, they didn't follow us. With the failed surprise attack, they must have realized that they were outnumbered and retreated." The Master spoke and Saber who had turned to listen in, nodded as she agreed with his assessment.
"Indeed, failing to take out a target with the first strike is a fatal mistake for an Assassin. Were it not for the terrain allowing for their escape, I would have struck them down at once." Artoria said, with not hesitation or doubts regarding the outcome. The swordsman she had faced on these steps was one thing, but a true assassin who only knew how to skulk in the shadows was no match for a knight such as her.
"...So, doesn't that mean they'll be targeting Archer instead and then coming back with reinforcements?" Ritsuka voiced the worry he had been holding since the attack and the three women all realized the truth of his words.
No one said anything as they looked over the burning city. They all noticed it now. How no arrows could be seen in the air, when so many had been in the air before that it had been impossible to not notice them. No more projectiles flying over the buildings and raining down shards of molten and shattered steel everywhere. It didn't mean anything, by itself. But, if whoever had attacked them had gone to assist the other Archer...
Finally, Saber sighed and shook her head. "We have come too far; even if we were to turn back, we will not be able to arrive before the Assassin. If Archer were to have been contracted with you, this would have been the time to recall him with a command seal. But, it does us no good to worry over things we can do nothing. We must simply have faith in Archer."
"Yeah, that guy seems competent enough to be trustworthy... Despite being a mannerless jerk who seems to take inordinate pleasure in cutting me off! And making all those snide comments at me, too. 'Babylonians'? Che! Hell, he better not die before I can give him a piece of my mind. It's like every time I tried to tell him off, he just happened to notice an arrow coming straight for us! Gah, just thinking about him makes me mad!" Olga-Marie spoke, growing more and more agitated as she spoke and by the end she was stomping her foot in annoyance and grinding her heel in, probably imagining she was stomping on that man's face.
"...You're right. Let's hope he's alright on his own." Ritsuka spoke to Saber, shaking his head as he did his best to ignore his Director, before turning towards the stairway leading up to the ruined remains of the temple on the mountain. "Let's go."
EMIYA grasped the sword, nocked it and drew it back in one motion. The blade twisted and turned, as if being molten and wrought in the space of an instant, turning into an arrow a single moment before it was loosed and sprung forward at supersonic speeds.
He made a noise of disapproval, as the arrow was intercepted and exploded in mid-air, harmlessly raining down debris on the husks of burned buildings below. At this point, he was starting to get annoyed. It was no issue that he couldn't hit his target, that was normal in combat against a skilled opponent at these ranges.
What annoyed him was the fact that every single arrow he shot had been shot down, effortlessly. Almost as if asking, 'is this the best you can do?', as if showing him how to shoot more precisely, more sharply and more calmly. As if merely instructing an underclassman in how to wield the bow. There was a calmness to it; a sense of confidence and self-assurance that tinged the shots that felt oddly familiar.
That was the feeling EMIYA got from this fight. The patient overbearing understanding for someone your inferior. No, that was merely his interpretation of the attitude. He bit back his annoyance and merely ground his teeth. Usually this would have been nothing to him; he would have merely sought to use this arrogance of his opponent to turn the tables at a critical juncture.
But now was different.
"'Blackening', is it?" He wondered to himself.
He had been bathed in the billion curses and been brought to serve the Saber who had defeated him. Though to say that he had been altered by the darkness was not exactly true. He hadn't been pure enough to be stained since long time. Not by hatred, not by anger, not by spite and not by disgust. Such things merely washed off him like so much water.
But just like water, droplets had stuck onto him and changed him in minor ways. Not his character or his beliefs, but the manner which he carries such things forth. As such, this burning anger; this vile hatred of everything; this unquenchable lust for destruction that clung to him could only be denied so much and the annoyance only served to fuel it further. Still, he wasn't controlled by that vile thing hiding inside the greater grail. Not now, not ever.
It was simply that he agreed with Saber's goals. Her character had been inverted, but her ideals remained. Darkened and grimmer than even he was used to, but still clearly herself more or less. He had no trouble working alongside her, even in this matter. As a guardian he could tell; humanity was destroyed. Completely. Utterly. Wholly and Totally.
Gone. All Gone.
He didn't know what to think of that. Of being freed of his guardianship. He had dreamed of it, yearned and prayed for it for countless untold millennia. Yet as he received it, it tasted of ashes and death. Saber was right and this was the only course of action that remained to them, even if it meant opposing whatever mysterious force it was that had eradicated all of mankind.
He ground his teeth and forcefully stopped going down that line of thinking again.
EMIYA loosed another arrow, this time to ward off another which had been aimed right at him despite neither Archer possessing line-of-sight of the other. "Tch, he keeps predicting my movements..."
He jumped down, turning into spiritual form and running through the streets and houses of Miyama. That was the one definite advantage EMIYA had been able to confirm he possessed; his opponent, whoever they were, could not astralize themselves. This had been a problem against that Caster, as both Servants had been trying to take surprise potshots at each other from range, yet had inevitably always sensed the attack at the last moment and astralized to create distance and resetting the engagement. That exchange had repeated again and again, in various permutations even as that Caster defeated another Servant in between their clashes.
Yet despite this advantage, EMIYA could not gain ground.
It annoyed him, but he ignored it. Feelings had no place on the battlefield; if the other was more skilled than he, then he would simply use other means to strike them down. He had never had a true redeeming quality, thus he had learned many paths to attaining victory. Sometimes you fought a sword with a sword and a bow with a bow, and sometimes you fought a sword with a bow and a bow with a sword.
EMIYA smirked as he astralized once more. He could not feel his opponent, but it was not the result of any skill or ability the other possessed to hide from others. Of this he was almost certain. Rather, it was the fundamental fact that his opponent was not a Servant and thus could not sense or be sensed by Servants through such means. On the other hand, EMIYA could sense Servants nearby just fine.
He projected a bow once more, arming himself with a sword as well. They were within range, as soon as it noticed anyone, there would be no escape for his opponent. "Checkmate, mysterious bowman. You were skilled, but your tactics as a whole are too refined for the battlefield. Be swallowed in the chaos and perish."
He loosed the arrow at random, simply to draw the other's attention and then waited.
The enemy took the bait; an arrow was loosed and struck his arrow out of the air, with another two following in their wake and aimed right at him. Just as before, the other Archer would find EMIYA based on a single shot and then attack.
"Too predictable." EMIYA smirked, not even bothering with the arrows as he merely jumped to avoid the attacks. At this point, any attacks from him would merely distract that thing from the other, which would be counterproductive.
A building collapsed fifty meters to the south and suddenly all was quiet. It seemed as if the air itself stood still, frozen in panic, as the wave of almost physically tangible bloodlust exploded forth. Then, another building collapsed, and another exploded into pieces as if a speeding truck had rammed into it and through it. And another house behind it and another, in a straight line.
"Berserker has his trail now." Emiya smirked and astralized, moving to flank from the other side and hoping to get a clear shot at his opponent from behind as Berserker moved to distract. It wasn't necessary, as his opponent lacked the means to astralize and that Black Destroyer would not give up until his target had been eviscerated completely.
But that annoyance would not settle until EMIYA had the chance to loose a shaft into his irritating enemy himself. He jumped over a building, invisible and intangible in his spirit form as he soared through the air.
He landed on a power-line and materialized once more, speechless at the sight before him.
There ran a man, holding a bow very much alike his own, avoiding the great mad warrior. EMIYA couldn't tell if he was desperate or confident, but his movements were controlled and faultless. His steps sure and swift as he barely danced outside the range of the Berserker who raged around with his great axe-sword, destroying buildings, streets and cars with reckless abandon.
"How...?" EMIYA whispered, not able to understand.
That hair, that face, that bow, that technique. It all spoke of one fact. Emiya Shirou was here and now, alive and well, fighting off against Berserker and surviving. It did not make sense. The Emiya Shirou of this time should have been a half-baked apprentice magus, a worthless child still drunk on his stupid ideals and too naive to see the truth even if it were staring him in the face.
No, no. He was too tall, too skilled. too strong to be that boy.
The red-headed archer below dispelled the bow, calling forth instantly a pair of ancient Chinese blades and began to dance and weave, his blades twisting and turning as his feet moved in dancing steps like water rolling down a hill, all to avoid the hurricane-like blows raining down on him by the murderous Heroic Spirit of Madness.
"Impossible..." the Servant of the Bow uttered in disbelief. Moreover, he should have been dead. While he hadn't confirmed it himself, surely EMIYA would have noticed his presence before now if he had survived. It didn't make sense. He shook his head.
"No, it doesn't matter. They don't matter."
Even if his existence here was an impossibility, it did not matter. Faced with Heracles, there lay no other path than to face a violent death. Even were this Shirou to try and run away, EMIYA would be there to cut him off. Just as EMIYA had planned it, originally. Yes, it didn't matter. The plan would still work just fine.
The red-head jumped back from the particularly wide swing by the Berserker, which caused a building to collapse on top of him as he sheared through a load-bearing wall by accident. The red-head a shot a look at EMIYA, as if ascertaining that he was still there and was still doing nothing of consequence.
"Tsk." EMIYA made a sound of annoyance as he projected his bow. It did matter; killing that fool would bring him some sense of completion; of finality, if nothing else. But before EMIYA had even time to loose an arrow, the magical energy spike caught his attention. But by then it was too late.
The red-head froze, dropping his swords as his eyes bulged. His left hand rose, shaking, up to his chest as he violently coughed out some blood. His eyes barely had time to see the skull-mask, hidden in the darkness of a house across the street, before he collapsed and moved no more.
The Noble Phantasm of Hassan of the Cursed Arm had worked flawlessly; the pseudo-heart had successfully been created, sympathized and crushed in an instant. Emiya Shirou's heart had been destroyed in an instant.
EMIYA froze, not quite understanding what had happened for a moment, before he spat in anger. Having a kill stolen from him would never have made him angry, under any other circumstance. But here and now, he eyed the dark figure which leaped out and landed next to him on the power-line. For a moment, he seriously considered whether he ought to cut down this Assassin.
"Tch, what do you want, Hassan?" EMIYA spat out the question, clenching the bow in his hand.
The house beneath which Berserker had been buried exploded, as the black destroyer freed himself from the pile. His maddened eyes searched left and right, before noticing that his target had been destroyed completely. He almost seemed disappointed, before eyeing EMIYA and Hassan for a moment as his roar quieted down to a deep growl.
"..." The Assassin eyed the Berserker warily, even as EMIYA glared at him from behind. "Archer-dono. This one apologizes for intruding upon your battle, but time is of the essence. This one has failed to defeat the strangers who pushed into the northern territory. This one requests your assistance with dealing with them, before they trouble our King. They should not have made it to the temple yet, yet we must make haste if we are to cut them off."
EMIYA scowled at the Assassin, muttering "Damn third-rate..." under his breath before nodding. It wasn't like she would need their help, but he wasn't going to let some strangers walk up to her without a fight. "Fine, let's go."
But before either could so much as move, the second spike in magical energy caused both to freeze. And the words that echoed next, made EMIYA's blood freeze in his veins.
"—Unlimited Blade Works."
The world around them exploded in a ring of fire.
Everything broke down and everything was rebuilt. The oppressive heat and stink of the dead city was replaced with the dry wind of his world. Their world. The golden sands beneath his feet, which he had become so painfully familiar with over the eternity he had spent inside his world, had never before seemed so alien as they did in that single instant. EMIYA tried to warn the assassin, but it was too late.
"Gyyaaaaahhh!" The Hassan was skewered by a dozen blades in an instant, dying before he could even comprehend the situation.
The dark cloak was pinned down, the blades pinning it hardly unusual in this place, where a thousand-fold more had been stuck into the ground for as far as they eye could see. This was a barren world, where only swords and weapons existed. A kingdom of rubble, a graveyard of dreams and a realm of regret. The burning sky of dawn, veiled by the hundreds of giant hanging cogs and wheels in the sky, was as familiar a sight to EMIYA as it was an impossible one.
"Hassan of the Cursed Arm, was it? That certainly was beyond my expectations. Luckily, I came prepared." Shirou stood up, from where he had been kneeling, as he patted his chest. The Zabaniya left no wounds, but his heart should still have been crushed. There was no means through which Emiya Shirou could have survived that, not without—
"Avalon...?" EMIYA uttered aloud, unable to believe it.
But that was utterly and wholly impossible; any version of him that could possess this level of skill ought have long parted with Saber, thus rendering that scabbard an unusable and meaningless relic. Yet there, standing in the middle of his internal world stood Emiya Shirou. Unharmed, armed with a bow and with a cocky smirk on his face, as if reveling in his turning of the tables.
"That's one down, even if he wasn't in the original plan. Well, I suppose that's what it means to keep your plans flexible. That Berserker will surely leave once nothing catches his attention, too. No point in trying to fight him alone, again. And as for you..." Shirou's gaze turned sharp, his eyes piercing right through EMIYA.
EMIYA looked around, realizing that Berserker indeed had not been pulled in. They were alone; Hassan already turning to ashes as his body broke down and scattered with the winds, his blood turning to dry dust before they could even turn to rust on the blades. Such was the death of a Servant; nothing remained of them.
"Now that you can't keep running away, let's compare our bladeworks, shall we?" Shirou said, a pair of blades twirling through the air as they were reeled into his hands through an effort of will. EMIYA swallowed as he projected his own swords; the annoyance from before had been all but eradicated and suddenly replaced by an all new feeling.
Artoria continued walking, holding her sword in her hand as they advanced deeper and deeper into the dark depths of Mt. Enzo.
They had scoured the temple grounds, finally finding the cave entrance which not even she had been aware of. She had to wonder, had it existed in her war as well? While it was not enough to spook her, the realization that there had been completely unknown depths involved in the holy grail war was still somewhat unsettling.
Still, she lead the way and continued onward. Behind her Ritsuka and Olga-Marie followed, five steps behind her and Mash another five behind them. In an enclosed space like this, where mobility was extremely limited, it was especially important to keep a rearguard in case of someone trying to attack you from behind.
They had already run into several foes in these dark depths. Dragon tooth warriors, which though stronger than the skeleton warriors roaming the city streets, posed Artoria no challenge at all as she ran through entire squads like a divine wind. The clatter and shatter of scattered and broken bones echoed and reverberated queerly inside the cave, but they pushed onward.
"Be careful; these are common familiars of ancient magi. We may face a Caster in these depths, where the leylines run strong and the magic in the air is thick." Artoria had warned them and they all understood how dangerous facing any magus inside their territory was, especially a magus who qualified for the Caster-class among Heroic Spirits. "But fear not; my Magic Resistance is considerable. If we must face a magus, then I shall swiftly strike them down without fail."
Her reassurance had comforted the younger two of the trio and they had picked up the pace through the darkness.
Somewhere along the way, the communication relay with Dr. Roman began to fail. They took that to mean they were nearing the end of the cave, as Romani had said that he hadn't been able to scan the depths of the cave before.
As the broke out into the vast cavern, they all held their breaths in awe. The vast underground cavern stretched into every direction as in the center a truly massive—in every sense of the word, as even against their magical senses it felt overwhelming—magical circle shone with deep power. The dark purple light barely lit up the cavern, as the center of the cavern had a hill-like precipice.
"An exclusive magecraft reactor core?" Olga-Marie spoke aloud in shock as she looked around in confusion. "This is the holy grail?"
"Hoo—h? What a peculiar fellowship has come to seek an audience with me..." A familiar voice spoke out, as a short figure walked forward before them, coming over the apex of the hill to stare down at the quartet.
Artoria froze as she beheld the figure before her, for a moment completely blanking out. Was it just a trick of the light? Or a delusion wrought by the thick energies in the air? No, she realized with growing horror.
What stood before her was a knight who was dyed through and through in the dark miasma of the old world, of the Britain Artoria had seen disappear with her kingdom. Moreover, that face, that voice, that sword.
"This... What is...?" Artoria spoke out, her voice barely above a whisper yet echoing in the cavern. "What is the meaning of this? Who are you?" She repeated, this time more forcefully as she regained her bearings, holding up her sword as she glared at the other. "Answer me!"
Next to her, Shielder looked uncertain as even their ever-reliable Saber seemed to be caught off-balance when faced with this stranger wearing a familiar face. As before them stood a carbon copy of Saber, only dyed in such darkness that it was impossible to mix them up, even for a moment.
"That sheath of wind...? No, that sword. That white, unstained dress and your girlish hair. I see." The dark mirror image of the Saber spoke up, before chuckling quietly. "This is myself, from before that hill. An innocent child, still pure and foolish. What a meaningless obstacle."
"'Myself'? Saber, what did she just mean, 'myself'?" Ritsuka asked turning to face the blonde knight as he finally shook himself free of his shock.
"...This is some... alternate self of I, who has been corrupted and stained whole in darkness. Khh... How disgraceful." Saber spat out the words, even as he eyes never parted from the other before them.
"An Alter? That's... Then who is she? We have to know if we want to face her in battle!" Olga-Marie cut in.
"...We are Artoria. Or rather, Artorius before and Arthur after. King Arthur. There existed none who ever spoke that first name. We were always merely a figurehead. An ideal to be used for the sake of the people. A king cannot be a woman, after all." The dark knight before them spoke out as she took a step forward, a dark miasma of the darkest magical energy beginning to coalesce around her like a mist. It coiled around her limbs and her sword, and even from where they stood the magi could feel the incredible magical energy contained within.
Olga-Marie took a step back in shock as she could scarcely believe it. "Such magical energy! Wait, what did she say, King Arth..."
"Ar...thur?" Mash spoke out, looking to Saber with wide eyes.
"Indeed. King Arthur, some called me. Though I know not of this one before me. Have you yet worn a crown, girl; have you yet steeled your heart, Knight Princess? That is what they called me once, I remember. In the days of my youth, long past." The dark Saber tilted her head as Artoria merely grit her teeth at the overbearing words the blackened knight spoke, her arm trembling as she stared at the other. Seeing as how the knight in white had no words for her, she turned to look at the shield-bearer instead. "And you? What a peculiar Servant you are, holding that shield. Are you perhaps some younger form of that knight, from before he left the nunnery? Could I have been so blind once that I even missed that Ga—"
"Enough!" Artoria roared, cutting off the dark knight abruptly as her eyes bored into the other. She took a step forward, raising her invisible blade to point at the other.
The blackened knight met that stare head on, before finally nodding. "...I see, that is not the case. No, she is quite a peculiar Servant. Indeed, I was mistaken and know nothing of this knight who stands before me."
"That matters not. Tell me, are you the cause of the disaster in this city? Were you allies with that lance-wielding Rider? Speak!" Artoria shouted out the last word, causing the darkened knight to raise an eyebrow, the first true change from her seemingly unbreakable frown.
"So that is what this is about... I see. Indeed, all of the still living Servants in this city have been brought to kneel before me. What of it?" The knight smirked, looking down on Artoria as she stepped forward and hefting her sword with one hand as she continued to advance towards the four below.
"To think that was the case, after all. I was a bit excited to meet another myself. But standing here before you, I must confess disillusionment and disappointment with what I am faced with." Saber lowered her head, before shaking it and glaring at the still descending knight.
"That is oft the case with children, facing their future. You, too shall one day arrive at myself, once you come to stand on that hill." The dark knight retorted, almost halfheartedly as she swung her sword once, as if to loosen herself and warm up, as she continued to slowly walk down the hill.
"Saber!" Mash raised her shield between herself, the Chaldeans and the advancing dark knight, as she glanced at the white knight by their side.
"I wish to face her alone, forgive my selfishness." Saber spoke, looking at each in turn and receiving hesitant nods in return. She smiled her thanks as she strode to meet the other. "I shan't be long."
"Indeed. Before my blade, you will not last long, Knight Princess. It is time for the dreamer to wake."
Saber merely huffed as she walked forward to meet the other, her mirrored self stained in the old darkness of her homeland. Less than ten meters remained between them as both came to a halt, baring their blades at each other.
The burnished black plate, veiled in dark miasma stood opposite to the pristine silver armor, on top of a stainless and pure white dress, as they both assumed a relaxed stance with their sword held in low guards.
At this distance, both needed two steps to reach the other, thus making this their outer range in terms of swordsmanship. Even with superhuman speed and agility, they still needed to accelerate to reach the other from a stand still. Even with them both possessing Magic Burst of the highest level, this distance could not be shortened. Not without lunging overmuch and becoming unbalanced, anyhow.
In battles of swordsmanship, balance was of the highest importance. He who sacrificed balance for a single grand lunge made himself vulnerable to punishment by making himself unable to recover and move quickly enough after that blow.
And with their enhanced reaction speed, even though their ranges grew, their chances of landing a blow from afar did not.
Saber took a step to the side, staying outside of that ten meter range as she strafed around the dark knight, who chose to remain stationary. The murky golden eyes followed the white-dressed knight with patience, holding absolute belief in her own strength. It was the duty of the Strong to receive the hatred and anger of the Weak and to stand unbroken, unbent and unrelenting by it, after all.
The simplest explanation for outer range swordsmanship, would be a game of rock, paper & scissors. Certain blows could be warded with certain guards, while certain guards could be broken with certain blows. Thus, when neither had yet committed themselves to an attack, observing and outmaneuvering the opponent was the road to victory.
Saber raised her sword hilt up to her hip, pointing the blade in the opposite direction of her opponent, almost akin to a long tail laid out behind her. This allowed her to hide her sword, even were it not invisible and had been her favored stance for many years. It allowed her to strike powerfully from both above and below and also gave her a strong side-ways parry, if she needed it. But in exchange, it left her sword behind her and forced her to remain outside an opponent's range lest they try to abuse that fact with a quick blow.
Of course the fact that in swordsmanship, where there existed countless one-hit kill techniques and special tricks to defeat your opponent in one strike, this game of rock, paper & scissors became one where there were more exceptions, caveats and extenuating circumstances than solid rules, is what made the art what it is.
The dark knight still held her black Excalibur low and to her side in a casual guard, not even bothering to held the sword with both hands. The casual arrogance that the dark knight exuded would have pressured any lesser opponent, even as she held no proper stance. Still, with her considerable strength and with her Magic Burst, it would still serve as a powerful guard.
Artoria held her stance, taking a half-step forward. It was less of an advance and more of a pressuring maneuver; to see if the other would allow her to encroach forward, to see if she could advance without the other reacting. Had she been more formally educated in the art of the sword in a later era, Artoria could have named her own stance as Nebenhut, Coda Longa or even a sha no kamae as per some of the local schools.
And just the same, the dark knight's stance could have been named a one-handed Eisenport or Porta di Ferro, if one were to try and forcefully translate it into a longsword guard. Usually, in such a guard one would rely on both hands to generate sufficient force through leverage to slap aside an attack, but with Alter's Magic Burst and stupendous reserves of magical energy, such concerns were moot as she held her sword with but one hand. For Artoria Pendragon, power generation for any attack was never a worry, regardless of stance of position, as her magical energy would propel her forward akin to a jet engine.
Both were supremely strong defensive stances and long range, but where one threatened with the unknown length of the sword and an attack that could come from any direction to strike down those who tried advance against it, the other merely waited for the other to strike so that in turn it could slap aside any attack and leave them open to a powerful retaliatory strike from above.
Neither knight moved, merely staring at the other, evaluating the other. They knew each other's style, techniques and swords inside out, thus for the usually Instinctive fighters, they could make very advanced guesses regarding what their opponent was thinking.
Strangely enough, both guards could be said to counter each other in a sense.
As the most natural attack from Saber's guard was a cut from the right—be it above or below—her opponent's guard could easily deal with that kind of attack and create an opening for the strong retaliatory riposte. If Alter were to attempt striking at Saber from below—as any other blow would require her to pull back her sword before bringing it forward, horribly telegraphing such a blow—all Saber needed to do was bring her sword forward and extended her hands towards the incoming blow while keeping the point of the sword still as she moved forward and ran her opponent through with the tip of her sword.
It all came down to timing and whose sword went higher on top of the other. The weak and the strong of the longsword were named such due to the fact that once you held the opponent's weak on your strong, you could control their blade with ease as you struck them down with your own weak. It was both a sword and a shield, at the same time, in the hands of a master.
Simply put, the one who attacked first would lose.
"How—" long are they going to stand there? Is what Olga-Marie tried to say, only for Saber to take that sound as the mark for the beginning of the battle.
She exploded forward like a burning comet, her sword extending towards the dark knight just as she closed into striking range. Bringing the sword forward with the point instead of going for a blow, Saber turned her attack into a thrust, aiming straight for Alter's face.
A thrust! The black holy sword swung upwards, to bat aside the invisible Caliburn extending towards the dark knight, who scoffed at the simplistic attack. Her guard was perfect for dealing with thrusts, after all!
But just as the blades were about to connect, the black blade swung through nothing as if there was no Caliburn in the path of that parry. In fact, there wasn't.
Time slowed down in perception, as Saber loosed her strength and released the right hand which had been holding the bottom half of her blade, not the top of the hilt where her other hand was and thrust forward. With the lower hand which now came under Alter's parry and passed straight through without facing any resistance from the over-extended dark knight.
By holding her hands higher up on the sword, to her opponent it must have seemed as if the sword had shrunk in length mysteriously. The Alter, who thought she knew the exact dimensions of Caliburn, had completely missed the tip of the invisible sword she had aimed for and swung through nothing leaving her over-extended and open.
Realizing that even with the explosive power she could generate in an instant, with only one hand on the hilt it was next to impossible to instantly reverse directions, Alter discovered her mistake and the fact of having been completely outplayed.
But she would not be beaten so simply!
The black knight barely dodged the one-handed thrust by leaning back, but blood freely flowed from her throat from the shallow gash she was still forced to take. She grit her teeth, her eyes narrowing into slits as she took a step back as she struck down with her raised Excalibur to parry away the Caliburn. But with the tiniest flick of Saber's left hand, the tip of the Caliburn flicked just enough to the side that the black blade once again missed entirely and with another flick it turned to point at Alter's throat again.
Receive another shallow cut from the one-handed trick and realizing she was still in danger, one of Alter's gauntlet-clad hands rose up to grab Caliburn before Saber could pull it back and slashed her neck clean off with a pull-cut. If she could just grab the blade, it's invisibility was moot and she could wrest down the other knight with raw force.
Saber didn't let her, raising a leg to kick the more heavily armored knight in the chestplate and sending the other knight reeling back for another four steps, as she pulled back her beloved Caliburn. Grasping it properly once more with both hands, she dove in at the same instant and not giving the dark knight a moment of rest.
"These petty tricks will not—!" Alter shouted, slamming her foot down as a wave of darkness spread from her, she swung the Excalibur upwards in a mighty backhand uppercut with one hand and surely expected to strike at Saber with enough force to shatter that fragile holy sword she held, or at the very least to send the other flying back.
But Saber saw through that strike, her own blade finding the incoming blow with the strong and holding it just for the barest fraction of a moment as she altered the course of the swing in the middle and then letting it slide off harmlessly upwards without ever having to resist that mighty blow directly.
Alter barely had time to yelp as the invisible sword struck out three times, gouging out sparks and shattering metal as Caliburn hit the armor Alter wore. Saber had tried to aim for the gaps, but the dark knight had just enough presence of mind to guard herself with her gauntlets as she was sent reeling back from the blows.
The black knight, took three steps backwards, raising her sword in a guard against Saber who did not follow. Artoria raised her hand, whipping the invisible Caliburn to the side and several drops of dark blood hit the stone ground of the cavern floor.
"'Petty tricks'? Hah, do not make me laugh. Your skills have degenerated to the point where even this is enough to wound you?" Saber spoke, standing proudly as she had faultlessly drawn first blood. She could have pressed on, but both her sense of Chivalry and her Instincts told her to hold. Just as she wished to demonstrate herself as the true Proud Knight King, she felt that this other Arthur had still been underestimating her.
"...Kh—!" The dark knight glared at Saber, her eyes in slits as her bloodlust and rage dyed the air around her black, before she calmed down just enough to talk once more. "...I see, that would indeed appear to be the case. I did not realize my skills with the blade had dulled so. To have forgotten how to fool my opponent into over-extending with Invisible Air, how weary I have become."
The black knight shook her head, stretching her neck but not bothering to wipe away the blood which stained her shoulder. Saber could already see the wound had closed, leaving no marks behind and showing truly how worthless first blood in a fight was, if it was not capable of ending the enemy.
"But, this is nothing. Just as you still cling to your humanity, I have accepted my own monstrosity and made it my own." Alter spoke, and for a moment Saber felt as if those words had some strange undercurrent or reverb, as the black knight reached for her vast reserves of power. "I have no more need of fine swordplay. My sword is the breath of a dragon that has knocked down countless castle walls. It knows nothing but victory."
Just as she finished her words, the red markings running down the length of the Excalibur suddenly lit up and glowed with barely contained power. Saber barely had time to realize the danger she was in, when the other struck out despite the ten meter distance between them.
And for a moment Saber thought she was safe, until she realized that Alter had not swung merely her sword. No, what she had swung at Saber was the massive magical energy construct created with Excalibur at its core. A gigantic black blade, as if a giant had created a longsword for itself to wield, no existed in Alter's hands.
The distance between them was made naught and Saber barely had the presence of mind to raise her sword and ward off the strike as she jumped backwards. But there was no meaning in blocking a sword made out of that black magical energy with a mere physical sword, even if it was a Noble Phantasm. The darkness seeped through and burned at Saber, before she managed to make it clear of the range of the abyssal giant's blade.
Saber landed with a wince, glancing at the gauntlet which had been nearly molten to slag with her hand still inside it. She looked up to see the black knight once more slowly walking to close the distance between them, still with unhurried steps.
"This black miasma, this oppressing weight! You seek the emulate the Briton Kings of ancient times!? Do you not see that you will lose your humanity, like this?" Saber rose up, roaring as she could hardly believe what she was seeing.
"Hoo—oh... How surprising, for you to know of that power of old, Knight Princess. I did not think one such as you would have been able to face that desperate old dragon and survive. Or are you perhaps someone else, altogether? No matter. A hero is someone who bears all the evil's of the world, suffering for the survival and happiness of others. It is natural for me to bear this power, dragon incarnate abomination born of the machinations of others, that I am." The Alter sneered as she continued to walk.
"Wha—" Saber couldn't believe her ears; couldn't believe those words were coming from her.
"What a meaningless obstacle, to cast one such you before me. You cannot defeat me." Alter stopped, raising her sword to point at Saber who could only grit her teeth. Then, the black knight exploded forward. Unable to hold a candle to the charge Saber had shown earlier, she was still all the more terrifying.
For all the lightning-like speed and explosiveness that Saber could muster in her dash, this blackened king of Britain's darkness was like an ever-encroaching tsunami. Great beyond belief, wider and deeper than any other in their power, coming comparatively slowly but all the more undeniably as nothing could stop her.
Saber jumped back four steps, achieving with that what Alter would need eight for. Yet, that great sword of darkness was enough to bridge the distance between them again as she took Alter took her ninth. Saber grit her teeth as she swung out her sword, this time letting that strike be accompanied with her war cry. "Invisible AIR—!"
The great wave of darkness would not be stopped by anything in its path, but it would slow down just for an instant as the force of a raging whirlwind slammed into it. But the Hammer of the Wind King was no match for Hammer of the Vile King. The sword of burning darkness broke apart the blast of wind Saber had managed to execute, unraveling the great magic woven by Merlin with ease.
Such was the power of Alter and Excalibur, blackened as they were.
But it had accomplished its job. With great gale slowing it down for an instant,Saber had enough time to avoid the attack. Having used the Invisible Air sheathing her sword as an attack, she had managed to jump back out of range. She spun around, almost touching the ground as she dropped down to avoid being hit, with her torso almost parallel for an instant before kicking off like a sprinter. Two steps and she was within range once more, having used the incredible sword of darkness the dark knight wielded as concealing cover to close in.
"Kh—! This much," Alter had time to grind out as she realized her own attack had created the opening for this counter, as Saber closed in with a three strikes that rung out against Alter's defenses so quickly as to sound like a single blow.
Receiving the first with her gauntlet Alter cursed, with Excalibur still powered up, she could not wield it this close to herself. She had to let go with one hand to block the first strike. The second had blown her arm back as the sword rang out against the gauntlet, leaving a huge opening for Saber to target, forcing the dark knight to dispel the magic empowering her sword with an equal amount of magical energy that it took to pull off in the first place, just to be able to pull up the sword in time to block the third blow.
But holding it only with one hand left it just as weak to being struck aside as it had left her armored fist and Alter could only lean back desperately to avoid being skewered by the fourth attack, a forward thrust. The point of Caliburn ground against the chest plate of the knight leaning back with all her might, carving a deep scar into the magic cuirass as it kicked up sparks.
Alter ground her teeth, her anger finally boiling over as she realized she was falling over backwards from that last hasty dodge. She pulled back her free hand and punched forward with all her might just as her back hit the ground with a sound not unlike an anvil being thrown against a mountain.
Saber, having seen her opponent off-balance, had rushed in to finish off the dark knight. She knew that with such defenses and healing, only a strike to the heart or the head would be enough. But just as she was about to rush forward and skewer the black king through the heart, her Instincts shouted at her to pull back.
The instantaneous response was the only thing that saved Saber's life, as the massive miasma blast in the likeness of a black dragon's maw shot forth from the Alter's extended hand. The massive chomp it did at nothing but air raised the hairs on the back of Artoria's neck as she could hardly believe the amount of magical energy that had just been thrown out with a simple punch.
That moment of awe was enough for Alter to regain her footing and lash out with Excalibur, one-handed as she supported herself. The black blade of magical energy was smaller than before, but would have still been enough to kill Saber three times over.
Saber reacting with plenty of time to the attack, charging her own sword full of magical energy as a golden light burst forth and lit up half the cavern with its brilliance. The warm and pure light from the unstained holy sword seemed to fill up the cavern, fighting back the dark miasma of the dark knight and the purple gloom of the holy grail.
Saber struck out with the sword, meeting the black sword head on and managing to ward it off just enough for to jump back out of range once more. She nodded to herself, noting that the same technique she used with Excalibur to boost the blade's cutting power worked just as well with Caliburn. It was nowhere near the level of something like Lancelot's famed technique with Arondight, but it was enough to ward off the blackened Excalibur for a moment.
But what of it? Could she simply keep running like this? Already she could feel the wear on Caliburn, which was a fragile sword originally meant for ceremony and coronations. Not a weapon for the merciless battlefields, such as this. Invisible Air barely slowed down one of those attacks, and as such she had no hope of getting in and dominating in close combat as long as the gulf between swords existed. There was no hope of striking down the black knight with a single strike at range, either. Her thick armor, that veil of black miasma which protected her and that prodigious healing all made a one stroke, one kill-victory all but impossible without first creating a great enough opening to strike through.
In this slight respite, Invisible Air had time to restore itself with an effort or Artoria's magical energy.
"What is the matter, Knight Princess? Have you not faced your first dragon, yet? Or do you despair at your own future so?" Alter taunted, but Saber ignored her. A dragon's breath? Knocking down castle walls? Saber had to admit, those were no empty boasts, after all. She stared down at her own golden sword and sighed.
As much as she preferred this sword of another she had wielded, she could not deny that Excalibur exceeded Caliburn in all aspects. While she held this sword, it could perform on the level of the original. But that was nowhere near enough to truly fight against this dark knight who would wield the holy sword of the planet with such reckless abandon.
If she were to go all out to match this black doppelganger, she was not sure which would give up first; her Caliburn or this cavern.
Already Saber could see the deep scarring in the cavern from the other's blows. Were they in any less open space, the cavern would surely come collapsing down on them. The only castle wall which could have resisted this kind of raw power to her knowledge would have been the walls of Cam—
Saber perked at the realization, as she looked over to the three Chaldeans who still remained at the sidelines as per her earlier request. It was somewhat un-chivalrous to run for back up after her earlier words, but... She had gained first blood and were she to possess a stronger sword she would surely be the victor. That's right, it was merely a matter of needing better equipment.
With such thoughts, Saber convinced herself.
"Ritsuka! I believe I require aid with this foe." Saber shouted out and the three Chaldeans perked up, as if only just now realizing they could be a part of this fight. The Shielder had been standing before the other two, who were peeking over her shoulders at the fight, all watching with wide-eyed awe at the two mirrored knights doing battle.
"Uh. Right! Mash, do you think you can handle it?" The Master stumbled for a moment, but quickly caught himself.
"Ah, umm—Yes! I mean, yes Master!" The Shielder nodded, after hesitating for only a moment. "Master, take cover. Shielder, joining the fray!"
The shield-maiden burst forward, not losing to the black knight in speed at all, as the two behind her moved to run a bit further back away from the fight as their cover had seen fit to leave.
"Hah. Are you going to cover behind a young maiden now, o Arthur?" The Alter spoke, with a mocking tone. But Saber could see the anger as well, though she could not see why the other would be so angered just by having to fight two opponents.
"Yes, well. I seem to have misplaced Prydwen, so I have sought a replacement. Sword and shield fight together, no? She will merely act as my shield." Saber smiled back, raising her sword as Mash settled in front of Saber a little to her left. Enough to cover her if need be, but not blocking her movement forward. "Are you ready, Mash?"
"...Yes!" The Chaldean hesitated only for a moment, as she was stared down by the blackened King Arthur. Saber, let go of her sword with one hand and placed it on the other's shoulder and the Shielder seemed almost surprised by that, as she half-jumped at the touch.
"Fear not, Mash. I have the utmost confidence in your abilities." Saber said, looking forward even as Mash looked back at her. The trust conveyed in those words, perhaps enhanced by the power of her natural Charisma or due to their somewhat unique relationship, worked to flawlessly boost the Shielder's confidence.
The dark knight's face soured, as she stared at the two who faced her now, together. "I see. It is the way of the weak to band together, when faced with overwhelming power. Come at me, and break before my might."
She swung her sword once, the tendril of dark energy extending from the tip of the sword to gouge out the cavern floor and easily scarring the hard rock.
"You need but hold steady, facing forward. If she tries to go around you, turn to face her. I will handle the rest." Saber said, keeping it as simple as possible. Teamwork and coordinated maneuvers were not something you could pull off without long experience working together, especially not against a single foe who could abuse any mistake and strike down either with but one blow.
"Yes!" Mash nodded, facing forward.
"Don't think this—" Alter spoke taking three running steps forward, rearing back her sword as the she primed her magical energy. "—will change—" Neither of the two knights had even so much as time to say a word, as the dark knight swung forward her blade from above, fully intending to cut down both with one strike. "—anything!"
The dark giant's sword descended with a howling of wind and raging magical energy, but Mash stood firm as she slammed her shield into the ground and propped her shoulder against the back of the shield. The tidal wave of darkness crashed down upon her, but her steadfast guard held strong as the crashing power washed around her like water around a speeding boat. For a moment, it seemed like they existed in a complete void as the dark wave engulfed around them, its roaring crescendo utterly deafening.
Mash felt herself being pushed back, despite digging in her heels and lowering her center of gravity. But as Saber behind her placed herself against Mash's back, she relaxed a fraction. With the two of them, they would not be blown away so easily no matter how powerfully the other knight struck against them.
"...I see, how troubling." Saber muttered, peeking over the Shielder's shoulder. Mash looked over her shoulder, feeling a moment of worry despite their success at defending. Noticing the glance, Saber explained. "Her wide, powerful blows leave her open for a counter. I had thought to disabuse her of such over-extensions with your aid, but it seems that if we attempt to take her blows head on, this miasmic attack will persist even after she has finished her strike. Thus, as long as we remain on the defensive, she will have plenty of time to recover and strike again as we will be too busy defending ourselves to retaliate."
"Oh...! That's, ghh...!" Mash tried to answer, but as the final burst of force assaulted her shield she had to stop speaking for fear of biting her tongue. They had a mere instant of peace, before the second wave of darkness extending from the Excalibur struck them once more. "Yes, I see now. She won't give us any openings!"
Mash had to shout, barely hearing her own voice over the initial gale of the blast of darkness. She wasn't sure Saber heard her, but upon seeing the knight of the sword nodding behind her she relaxed.
Saber understood from these few exchanges, that if they remained on the defensive they would lose. The seemingly inexhaustible well of power that stood before them would not stop and sooner or later Mash's stamina would run out. As long as they continued to take these attacks head on, there would be no victory.
On the other hand, dodging had worked quite well. Without the continued pressure and danger of the wave of darkness assaulting her, she could freely attack upon the exact moment of weakness that Alter opened herself up to. Were Saber to try and rush in after taking one such attack head on, she would merely be running straight into another.
"Mash, we shall have to change tack." Saber shouted, just as the second wave from the blackened Excalibur died down. "Can you face her on your own?"
Mash understood immediately, nodding without hesitation but for a single question. "But how?"
Saber smirked, raising her sword, once more clad in the winds that bent light around her blade to hide it from view. "I shall make an opening; on my mark rush forward and make your assault upon her. I shall mirror your attacks as best I see fit."
"Alright!" Mash nodded before looking forward once more, her eyes narrowing as she glared at the incoming third wave of darkness as the Alter roared at them. She had some hesitations about facing that dark knight in melee, but even through her fear she realized that if they let that dark knight remain at a distance they would not be able to do anything. Thus, she would face her fears and run forward, so that she could keep standing proudly with her head held high.
The third roaring wave struck her once more, as she held her shield firm. With the presence of Saber removed from supporting her back, she felt herself struggling to not be pushed back once more. The deafening sound, the whipping winds and the flying debris from the cavern floor being destroyed with every blow, Mash felt it all yet felt no fear. She would hold.
Just as the strike began to die away again, Mash felt Saber move behind her. Jumping forward with her sword held aloft, the winds suddenly changed entirely, as Saber struck forward again. "Invisible Air—!"
The last remains of the third strike was scattered like leaves on the wind, before the tempestuous blow struck by Saber, as she poured all her strength into her Noble Phantasm.
And for an instant, as if time itself had slowed down to allow Mash perfect clarity in that moment, she could see that the path to the dark knight was open. Sword still held down from that great blow with her stance still off-balance and magical energy not yet primed for her next attack, the dark knight had a look of astonishment in her eye as she realized Mash could see her.
Mash realized, that if she did not rush forward this instant she would not be able to make use of this opening and would have to block yet another wave of darkness. But, if she did rush forward with all her might and sprint for all that she could, she would be able to make it to the other before they could strike once more.
Her jaw tightened, her eyes narrowed and her armored boot dug into the ground as she poured power into her feet. The shield rose as she barely had time to inhale, before she exploded forward like a rocket. Holding her shield before her, she sprinted for all the she could while glaring at the the dark knight.
"Tch...!" Alter had time to make a sound of annoyance as she raised her sword, but not up for another great cleave but to protect herself, before the rushing Shielder slammed into her with her great shield.
The dark knight was unharmed, but was pushed back several steps. She recovered her stance and glared at the Shielder, opening her mouth to say something but not having time as the knight of the shield continued to run forward.
Shielder set her shoulders, putting more power into her legs as she yelled out to charge her spirit to match her enemy, the shield leading her way again as she dashed forward. "Hiiyaaaa!"
Alter ground her teeth and jumped back another step, pivoting on her rear leg to let the charging shieldmaiden pass by and avoiding the straightforward attack with ease. Recklessly pushing forward would only leave you vulnerable to a skillful counter, that was the basics of combat. But even so, Alter did not attempt to punish the wide open back of the Shielder who ran past her.
Even with her Instincts lowered by the dark taint of the miasma, she still had enough of presence of mind to sense the trap there. Indeed, as soon as the knight of the shield passed her by, she turned to face the second knight, running in the wake of the first.
Saber, who had been running immediately behind Mash in the trail of her rush, charged forward at the dark knight with her sword held readied. Had the Alter attempted to strike Mash, Saber would have taken her head in a single stroke before Excalibur could even draw blood; they both knew.
"You—!" Alter cursed, meeting the golden burning Caliburn head on and throwing a glance at the Shielder behind her.
"Your opponent is before you!" Saber shouted, throwing three cuts and scoring naught but a sparks-generating gash on one of the Alter's faulds as the dark knight desperately defended herself.
"Khh! Two on one, I will not—!" The Alter tried to ground out, realizing that if she did not fight off the knight of the sword before her, she would be struck down from behind an instant later as Mash came to a stop and began to turn around.
Perhaps sensing a slight to her chivalrous honor in those words and in fighting two against one, Saber responded with words of her own as her golden sword struck against the Excalibur and armor of the one before her, twenty blows already and more every second. "Worry not! I shall finish you before Mash will have time to assist me!"
The blackened king ground her teeth, taking another and another step back as she was being pushed by the offensive onslaught of her other self. She had derogatorily spoken down to Saber, thinking her some wraith of her past, but she recognized the error of her previous thoughts now. Rather, she was being forced to realize she was mistaken, as whoever this mirror of herself was she far exceeded her in swordsmanship. Past or present.
Even disregarding the Shielder already running up to her, Saber Alter knew she was on the defensive now. Even with her prodigious healing were she to take but a single blow, this knight of the sword would take that inch and turn it into a mile as every wound would serve to slow down the Alter just a little bit more, until finally her head would come flying off from a clean stroke by that golden blade.
Having such a premonition of defeat, the dark knight finally grew desperate.
"E—NOUGH!" That enraged roar, dyed black through her vast magical energy shook the air itself and both knights had to brace for a moment in surprise. And that moment was just enough for the dark knight to free herself of this predicament.
The Excalibur stained black swung forward with one hand, as Alter turned to throw her one hand at the Shielder who stood a mere three steps away from Alter's back. In that instant, simultaneously as the black wave of miasma shot forward from the sword, a black dragon's maw burst forward from her outstretched gauntlet.
Both Saber and Mash desperately guarded against their respective attacks and managed to hold off them with their own means. As Saber let loose for the first time in this fight the burning light that belonged to her treasured Caliburn to eradicate that attack head on, so did Mash simply charge forward and grit her teeth against the onslaught of dark energy.
Perhaps the attacks had been weak due to their desperate nature or perhaps dividing her attention into two directions had halved their power, but the result was clear. Neither Saber nor Mash had been harmed at all by the attacks of the dark knight.
But, just as the two knights knew this, so too must have the dark knight foreseen it. As such, they had been nothing more than time-buying measures.
Saber, holding her burning golden sword aloft as she had banished the blade of dark miasma, realized this as she saw her darkened self standing in a low stance with her sword held in both hands. "Mash! Back!"
Saber barely had time to shout out before she threw herself backwards, but it was enough as Mash raised her shield in time to ward herself.
Alter upon loosing her attacks had immediately sought to charge her next, relying on the attacks to hold back the two knights long enough for her to ready herself. She coiled, bringing her sword low as she poured power into her feet and back. And then with a might yell, she released all her primed energy and swung out horizontally at the shoulder level as her feet twirled her around, bringing her sword around her in a 470 degree spincut.
With the dark knight as the center, the huge maelstrom of the dark light of Excalibur burst forward, destroying nigh everything it touched. The cavern floor was torn up and crushed, rocks and gravel sent flying everywhere as Saber desperately jumped back in time to avoid the attack while Mash was sent flying backwards as the blow struck her shield.
She managed to stay on her feet, her boots skidding against the cavern floor with such force that her heels managed to kick up sparks, until she finally came to a halt twenty meters away from the black knight. About as far away, on the other side of Alter, Saber had come to halt as well.
Though they had been forced to back off, it was an advantageous position, nonetheless. They could continue with their pincer maneuvers, taking advantage of the dark knights powerful but slow blows. Even were Alter to try and run to the side, to bring them closer to each other as they pursued her, she was much too slow to be able to get far enough.
But as neither party was willing to make the first move, Saber had to put words to her thoughts. "You are... Not quite what I had taken you for."
Alter looked up, half glaring at the knight in white who had spoken. She was not quite panting, but the effort it had taken to fight off the two of them was apparent. "...That goes for you, as well."
"If you know of Camlann, and the fate that befell my... our kingdom. Then you cannot be some alternate self of I, from whence things went differently during my life." Saber mused, half to herself as she relaxed. At this distance, neither could quite get the drop on the other even if they lowered their guards. And while every second gave Alter a chance to regain her energy, it also gave Shielder a chance to recover as well.
Alter could no doubt keep fighting, gritting through any pain and exhaustion as she could heal lesser wounds and keep going until she tired them out. But Saber and Shielder were different. Even with Artoria's own healing abilities, she would not be able to keep up with this darkened self before her and Shielder would not be able to keep going if she were to take a strong blow. Perhaps if she had thought to ask Shirou to return her scabbard... But no, she wanted him to hold it more than she needed it herself right now.
Thus, playing for time was the correct choice. Once again, Invisible Air re-appeared and Artoria wondered how many times she would be able to buy time to 're-arm' her sheath. For without it, she did not have much faith in taking on that black giant's blade.
"...I see, we understand that much. Then the difference must lay beyond that hill of despair where the truth was lain bare before me." Alter spoke, staring intently at Saber as if trying to see through the knight in white and reveal what lay within her.
"The Fourth War, was it? I remember now. I had forgotten," Saber said, but then shook her head, realizing that was wrong. "—no. I had repressed that memory, in shame in and in anger. As I stood before the grail, beaten and bloodied, having trampled on all that I had held dear and been forced to witness the ugliness of both Knights and Masters...
"For a just a moment, I believe I could have thought just as you do." Saber said, nodding to herself. "Tell me, just what did Emiya Kiritsugu do in those final moments for you to have remained in that wrathful state of mind?"
"Yes, that explains it." Alter responded, chuckling as she shook her head. "I had thought that being bathed in the contents of the grail had merely been the culmination of a road, which would inevitably lead to myself... That dark and distant place, where everything was revealed to me, where I was to face everyone I had ever met and everything I had ever done, where the only way out was with sword in hand.
"Yes, that does explain it. How you are able to hold onto your dreams, forever remaining blind to the woes of the world and the folly of your fantasies." The dark knight stood taller, as if she had been freed of a great burden somehow. "Inside that mud, I struck down the memories of everyone I knew. Everyone, except myself, I now see." She turned to look at Saber, sneering at the knight in white as she swung her sword to the side, as if casting aside all the phantom weight and regrets which had been slowing down and dulling her blade. "I had thought this encounter meaningless, but it has been enlightening. I was wrong, after all."
Saber blinked, reeling at the thought of having been forced to bathe in the darkness she knew lay within the depths of the holy grail of Fuyuki. To be stained by that black mud, which sought only to corrupt and destroy humanity, what kind of madness had this other Artoria faced? Saber could not even imagine it.
But, those last few words brought her back. "What do you mean, you 'were wrong, after all'?"
"Just that. I was too kind, too patient and too lenient as a king." The blackened tyrant laughed, the sound almost odd, as if the act of laughing could grow rusty from disuse. "I ought to have executed Lancelot and Guinevere myself, just as I ought to have crushed all those who grew dissatisfied with my rule. Thinking 'as long as they do not return, I shall not mind' was naive."
Saber took a step back, horrified at what the other had just suggested. "You cannot be serious!"
"Oh, but I am. You must have thought so yourself, at least once: 'the more that I suffer, the more the country will prosper'." Alter smiled, an ugly and crooked thing somehow despite her fair features. "Then the thoughts of those who swore fealty to me are irrelevant, for any punishment they bring upon themselves is merely the natural result of a just ruler. Those two kings, regardless of their own faults and foolishness were right about one thing: A king does not have time to chase after foolish ideals. If a king wishes to bring prosperity to their subjects, but cannot due to the misdeeds of others, then the proper course of action is undoubtedly to strike down all who would oppose the rule of that king."
Saber took a step back, horrified at what the other was saying now. "You...! You, with that miasma and that ruthlessness! Do you seek to emulate that treacherous tyrant, Vortigern!?"
"Our aims were entirely opposed, but looking back... I cannot say that I fault the man's actions." The dark knight said simply, shrugging as if she did not think much of admitting such.
Saber stared at the other with wide open eyes, before she finally shook her head.
"I see. You called it a 'hill of despair', didn't you? I can see why you would call it that, having been there myself. But that is where we differ!" Saber shouted, but Alter looked on unimpressed. "You never walked off that hill on your own powers, you never left behind that despair and regret and anger. No, you were blinded by it until you forgot everything else."
"Then let us see, who is blinded, and by what, you foolish child!" The dark knight respond with a snarl as she primed her magical energy, a wave of black miasma bursting from her in a wave.
"Yes, I will show you what you have forgotten. What we had forgotten. Show you what the Artoria who has walked past the despair looks like!" Saber shouted back, her own magical energy roaring to match the dark one before her. "I will show you the pride of a knight!" Artoria raised her Caliburn, dispelling the invisibility as the golden holy sword burst alight like a bonfire to light up the entire cave with its brilliance. "I will show you the oath of the king!" And then, as if the magical metal had been containing a truly massive force but could withstand the pressure no longer, Saber's armor burst into golden motes of light and joined in the great maelstrom of magical energy roaring around Artoria Pendragon as she looked ahead with burning eyes. "And I will show you the dream of the girl you left behind!"
Alter who had been scoffing at the proclamation of the now unarmored white knight clad in but a pristine dress, hesitated for a moment at those last words, their meaning entirely alien to her. Thus, as she blinked for just an instant, she almost missed the golden shooting star that came to claim her head in an explosion of contained wind.
If Saber had been fast in her charges before, then right now—as she had cast aside her armor and her sheath and put her everything solely into boosting her own physical abilities with Magic Burst—was beyond even the realm of fast. Offense, defense and mobility all hinged on this one skill, and with her reserves freed from those burdens that she normally wore, in her current state she was beyond compare with her normal self.
The dark knight blocked with Excalibur, not even trying for a skillful parry and merely resorted to using her own Magic Burst to create a veil of darkness to cover and shield her. But as she received the blow she realized that the Invisible Air had not been simply canceled, but had been delayed and released behind her to boost the white knight's charge.
Thus, the force behind Saber's blow sent the dark knight reeling backwards as her defense was smashed through with a single tumultuous blow.
"—Gah!" Alter had time to grunt as she caught herself, raising her sword to protect herself once more as Saber rushed to close in. Losing the initial burst of speed now that the Invisible Air was spent... Did not make any difference at this range, as Saber's super-charged Magic Burst allowed her to instantly close in and smash through Alter's guard again, sending her flying back as her balance and stance hadn't been anywhere near as good as for the first blow.
Alter grit her teeth and raised her sword again as she landed, her sabatons kicking up sparks and gouging the cavern floor as she skidded backwards. This was fine, she told herself.
And then she had barely enough time to block another sword swing which sent her reeling backwards once more. This was fine, Caliburn was a weak sword and it would break sooner or later. This knight before her was throwing her all into this charge, thus she would not be able to continue it forever. As it came to an end, one way or another, it would be Alter's turn. Then, she could cut down the unarmored knight with ease. As long as she could weather through this onslaught alive, then victory was hers.
That is, if only these flashes of something would stop assaulting her every time they crossed swords. Golden hills, a distant morning, a sword set in stone.
The dark knight had an instant of reprieve and could see the incoming knight, clad in but a white dress, holding aloft a painfully nostalgic golden holy sword in her hands. Alter almost grinned as she regained her footing and swung forward, certain that her unbreakable sword would shatter the fragile sword which had broken in her own hands once before.
With the sword gone, the Artoria before her would be defenseless and those damn memories would stop flowing into her head!
Yet, the contact between blades was too weak, and Alter had no way to realize it as he Instincts compared to Saber were too dulled. The moment Artoria had felt the pressure and resistance of Excalibur, she had judged it to be greater than what she could allow Caliburn to receive and had simply slackened her grip and flowed around the blow.
This left her inside Alter's guard as Excalibur struck at nothing, though with Saber's sword held hilt forward as her blade was almost parallel with the black Excalibur. But this did not mean Saber lacked means for attack, far from it in fact.
She used all the forward momentum she had from running forward, as well as the force which pivoted her sword around as she received the blow from Alter's Excalibur, to smash into Alter's face with her golden sword's bejeweled pommel. As she did that, she also simultaneously slammed her shoulder into Alter's chestplate, making use of every bit of speed she had gathered in her charge.
Whereas Saber found clarity in the moment, flowing with her sword effortlessly, Alter merely one second sought to strike down Saber and the next had cut through nothing. Before she could realize what had happened, however, the pommel smashed into the dark knight with the force of a hypersonic sledgehammer.
Before, she had been thrown back ten meters at the most, but this time the shoulder tackle sent her flying easily over thirty as she lost consciousness for a second before she slammed into the cavern wall behind her. The pain of slamming her head into the wall paradoxically awoke her from the unconsciousness brought about by the pommel strike, before Saber could take advantage of it.
Blood flowed freely from the dark knight's forehead as she kneeled, glaring with one eye at Saber. She coughed, as red mist came out and splattered the ground and her feet.
Saber hadn't expected the shoulder tackle to be so effective, thus she had missed the critical timing. Still, she reasoned, with the damage she had dealt to the dark knight, she should be able to win easily now.
But if Saber understood that, then Alter must also understand that. The two seconds which it took Saber to realize that, meant she was too late.
Alter stood, barely on able to remain on her feet, with her arms raised. Above her, she held the blackened holy sword of the planet, Excalibur. And like before, a truly massive amount of magical energy was being primed in the sword. But this time, the amount that was being called forth was enough to dwarf anything the dark knight before. Enough magical energy to vaporize castles, Saber realized with horror as she knew what would come next, but had never thought she would be on the receiving end of.
There was nothing she could do, at this distance she could neither dodge or block, she could not attack and interrupt the Alter nor could she pull out any tricks. Perhaps I should have brought along Avalon, after all.
Saber faced death that lay a fraction of a second in the future, but the words that reached her ears brought both confusion and salvation. Far to the side, over a hundred meters away, Ritsuka had shouted out at the top of his lungs.
Saber did not understand; she had not made a formal contract with the Master, nor did she posses any means to defend herself anyhow. Moreover, Mash was at least 50 meters away, having been left behind in Saber's mad rush against the dark knight. So ordering her was... Ah, they might get hit by the blast as well. Protecting themselves is the correct move, after all. I leave the rest to you, Shiro—
Those thoughts were cut short however as space itself twisted and warped before Artoria in a supremely familiar fashion. She only had a second to realize that it was a forced spatial transportation—just like one she herself had experienced once as a Servant—the instant before Mash teleported before her with her shield held aloft before them.
The knight of the shield faced the blackened holy sword with nothing but her shield.
The sword of darkness descended, the wave of power that would stop and nothing burst forward as if a dam had broken. Inescapable death approached as Saber could only gape in amazement as Mash slammed down her shield, glaring at approaching death with burning eyes as she called out—
The tsunami of the holy sword crashed at the shield, but like a wavebreaker it held. The sound of the dark light destroying everything around them as Excalibur pumped out death was like nothing either had ever before experienced, leaving the previous attacks so far behind as to seem like playful jabs.
But just as the attack was incomparably greater than before, so too was Mash unlike herself from but a moment before. She stood, straight of back as she leaned into the shield and grit her teeth to hold on. But no desperation, no fear and no hesitation clouded her eyes as she held on.
Saber, who had been prepared for death, could only wordlessly stare in awe at the back which now protected her. It took the knight-in-but-a-white-dress a moment to collect herself, as she could only nod to herself with a satisfied huff.
That man had one hell of a successor, it would seem.
"Thank you!" Saber shouted out, though neither could hear it. Mash nodded nonetheless, as if saying she would not have let Saber be struck down if she anything to say about it. "I suppose I have to respond in kind, we are bringing holy swords to the fore."
Mash could neither hear nor understand a word Saber said, but she got the gist. She needed only to hold on until the end of this attack. But that was easier said than done, as the darkness continued to stream at her shield, pushing her back a little every second even as it could not break through her defense.
Behind the shieldmaiden, Saber prepared the greatest trump card she had at her disposal. Unlike a mere Noble Phantasm's activation, this would take several seconds. But it offered performance which more than compensated for that downside.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity it ceased. Mash almost collapsed as the weight pushing against her shield disappeared and she realized she had been leaning into the shield with such force, that her feet felt like jelly as they had to support her once more.
But that was alright, for behind her she could feel a power that easily rivaled the sword which had been assaulting them just now. Mash looked up and then froze at what she saw.
Alter stood without swaying again, her grim visage hinting at none of the earlier damage as she raised her sword again for yet another blast of her holy sword.
"She healed already...?!" Mash asked, despairing. She couldn't take another attack like that, not so soon.
"Worry not. It is my turn!" Saber said as she stepped forward, to stand before Mash.
Alter smirked, realizing that the Shielder could go on no further and that before her stood only Caliburn, which her own Excalibur dwarfed in all respects. The two, almost mirror images but for the vast gulf of beliefs between them, raised their swords in perfect sync.
The pressure of the two colliding magical energies primed was enough to raise the hairs on the backs of everyone's necks, as they realized that this was the clash of two true holy swords.
Supreme darkness, the ancient miasma of Britain.
Golden light, the ideal and dream of a young king.
Darkness and light collided in a thunderous crash. Stone was shattered and rock was ravaged, the cavern falling to pieces all around them as the ceiling was beginning to crack from the abuse it was taking.
The two sword beams clashed in the middle, yet instantly one began to overpower the other. It took less than a second for it to overtake the other holy sword and the knight king wielding it barely had time to utter a sound of surprise before what remained of the Noble Phantasm's power after taking out the Excalibur's blast slammed into her.
"Gah!" Alter slammed into the wall, scorched and burned. Her armor was gone as was her left hand which had been holding onto Excalibur, thus had received the brunt of Caliburn's burning light.
Saber walked up to her, with slow and certain steps. In her hand, was the cracked and broken Caliburn. Alter could not tear her one working eye away from the golden sword as she tried to understand what had happened.
Perhaps it had been due to Alter being pressed so hard before. Perhaps it was due to it being her second full force blow with Excalibur in a row, a weapon which was tiring to use even a single time. Perhaps it was simply a difference in the way the Noble Phantasms displayed their power over time, with Caliburn bursting forward in a straight line and with Excalibur Morgan releasing a constant stream through which a concentrated attack could go through...
Who could say, but both understood that this was a once-in-a-thousand chance upset, something that should not have been possible, but yet had been made to happen. Perhaps it was simply the nature of heroes to tip the scales when the chips were down.
"...It's something my lover taught me." Saber admitted, raising her hand where the Caliburn was already fading away. Starting from the tip of the blade, the holy sword was turning into motes of golden light and disappearing into nothingness. "Well, I can only use it once." Such was a Broken Phantasm, after all. While it was a shame to destroy such a fine blade, Artoria believed it to be alright as a true blow made with all her powers. "But more importantly... Were you able to see it?"
Alter did not answer. Perhaps she could not answer, due to the fact that her entire left side was gone. Without her heart, even she would die.
"...T..he dream...huh..." Alter closed her eyes and breathed her last, a second later she began turning into motes of light, disappeared as her spirit core had been destroyed.
Perhaps Saber had been merely seeing things, but at the end it looked almost like her eye had been green as she passed away.
"...You should be able to pass that hill of despair on your own now." Saber said giving the dark knight a few last words, as she closed her own eyes to offer a small prayer for her other self.
"Hah... Haah... Saber-san!" Mash panted as she stood up, moving to approach Saber having regained some of her mobility with her breathing having stabilized again.
"I'm fine. Thank you for the aid, Mash. It is alright, you should rest for a moment, there is no hurry." Artoria spoke, smiling lightly. She turned to look at the two magi who were moving to approach the two knights now that the fighting was over. As they were within shouting distance, Saber continued. "And you as well, Ritsuka." She noticed the two faded markings on the Master's hand; one for the instant movement and another for the Shielder to be able to stand firm. The timing had been absolutely perfect. "You certainly have the makings of a first-rate Master."
"Ah, that's. Yeah." Ritsuka looked surprised at the comment, turning bashful for a moment as he looked away, a small flush on his face before he turned a worried glance at Mash in turn. Seeing that she was fine, smiling up at him contentedly, he nodded at her with a smile of his own. "Good work, Mash."
"You as well, sempai— No, Master."
"Ooh! Good work everyone! With this, the signal noise has reduced considerably! Congratulations on clearing the Fuyuki Singularity. Ah, it's a shame we still can't get visuals, I would love to see your faces right now but..." The buzzing, coming in stereo from the wristbands both Ritsuka and Olga-Marie buzzed and for once, even the surly Director did not look like she would chide him.
"Good work. You've certainly exceeded my expectations... The both of you." Olga-Marie spoke, looking at Ritsuka and then after a moment's hesitation at Mash. The Master-Servant pair nodded back at her with smiles on their faces. "'A place worth protecting', huh."
"Hmm?" Mash asked, as Olga-Marie looked at her and spoke quietly.
"Ah...!" The Director realized she had spoken out aloud and coughed awkwardly. "It is nothing... Mash. I merely thought... Thought that the name you chose was a fine one."
The Shielder nodded, smiling back at the awkward Director, but not saying anything more.
"What is that?" Saber spoke, noticing something that none of them had noticed until now.
The others turned, looking at the spot where the dark Saber had perished against the wall. They all spotted it immediately, the golden object of some kind. Possessing an octahedron shape, it was clearly an object of some kind of power.
"What is..." Olga-Marie said as she noticed it as well.
Fou suddenly turned on Mash's shoulder, tilting its head and making a curious sound at something unseen by the rest.
But before any of them could react, the slow clapping sound which echoed queerly through out the cavern caught their attention. Ritsuka noticed the new arrival first, having been half-facing the center of the room. Standing atop the hill the Alter had been originally at, near the massive magical circle, stood a lone man.
His tall form, having his back-lit by the glowing engravings of magical power which turned his figure ominous even to those who recognized him. His top hat and long, messy hair made it possible for most of them to recognize him at once.
"Lev!" Olga-Marie immediately reacted, her face lighting up as she recognized his silhouette and his face.
The clapping continued for several seconds afterwards, until the man in the top hap lowered his hands. "My, I never thought something like this would happen. Or that you would manage to make it all the way, here. This is an unforeseen element of the project that goes beyond what my tolerance allows."
"Professor Lev...!" Mash reacted as well, appearing both relieved and surprised.
"You're..." The black-haired Master uttered, frowning as he stared up at the man. Ritsuka merely looked confused, not understanding why and how the man he had met back in Chaldea had appeared here.
"Proferssor Lev, you said?" Dr. Roman's unbelieving voice came from the wristbands, as even with the lack of visual communication he could still listen in on them.
Artoria had immediately raised her guard at the sudden stranger's appearance, but it seemed none of the others shared her wariness despite his strange words. She was about to question his appearance and true identity from the others, but Olga-Marie reacted before she could.
"Lev... Lev!" She shouted with obvious relief and joy in her voice, tears forming in the corners of her eyes as she broke into a run towards the man.
"Wait—!" Saber tried to shout, her Instincts screaming at her that this whole situation was utterly strange and telling her that something was plainly wrong here.
"Thank goodness you're alive! Without you, without you! I don't know what I would do...!" But Olga-Marie paid the knight's shout no heed, even as Mash and Ritsuka turned to give querying looks at Artoria for raising her voice so suddenly.
"Well, Olga. It seems you've had a rough time." Lev spoke, his face still mostly hidden by the darkness as his long hair hid his features from the light cast by the magic circle behind him.
"Yes! That's right! One thing after another, everything going out of control, it was more than I could bear, Lev!" Olga-Marie smiled as she ran, shaking away her tears. It was a pure smile; of joy, of relief and of knowing everything would be alright after this. "But with you here, everything will be alright!"
"But of course." Lev spoke calmly, nodding to her words. "...I'm just so furious with all these developments... —Romani, I told you to come to the control room right away."
Those words and the sudden change in the man's tone shook everyone except Olga-Marie, who still hadn't managed to realize what the other had truly said.
"...Professor Lev, that's..."
"And you, Olga. I planted the bomb right beneath your feet, yet..." Lev spoke, half-laughing the words out as if he still couldn't believe it himself. "You're still here."
The running Director, finally realizing that something was wrong slowed down to a halt at the foot of the hill where Lev stood. She looked up with wide eyes, drinking in the sight of the man she had grown to rely and trust on more than any other during her life. Finally, the meaning of his words began to sink in.
"Well, not exactly alive." Lev spoke, as if revealing the punchline to a joke he found particularly amusing. "In fact, you're already dead. Your physical body, anyhow."
Everyone present blanched at those words. Olga-Marie could only stare up with wide eyes at Lev, as he continued to speak.
"During your life, you had no aptitude for Rayshifting. As long as you had your physical body, you simply could not transfer. But you had such an earnest desire, that it survived the death of your body. The aptitude you so desired has finally been given to you, at the cost of your life, Olga." Lev raised his head, the dark purple light from behind him streaming through his hair to light up his face. He was smiling crookedly, evidently taking great pleasure in telling Olga the truth of her situation.
"No... That, that can't..."
"That's why, the moment you leave this Singularity, the moment you try to return to Chaldea... Your consciousness will be blown away like dust in the wind. No, rather it will cease to exist."
"C-cease...?" Olga-Marie repeated, taking a step back as her entire body began to shiver.
"But that's too miserable to contemplate." Lev said, smiling. "You dedicated your life to Chaldea, so the least I can do is show you."
As he finished speaking, he had extended his hand outwards and is if pulled in by some unseen force the strange item left behind by the dark knight was pulled in and placed in his hand. Lev smirked and the golden glowing relic vanished, and then with a snap of his fingers, space warped.
I huge portal appeared behind him, through which a large burning red orb could be seen. For a moment, Saber thought it the sun but as she realized it had six rings of various size around it she understood that couldn't be it. They all stood frozen, unable to move as various thoughts raced through their minds at the sight.
But, the one who knew that sight most intimately here, understood what it was.
"What is this? That can't... That can't be. Lev, it has to— It has to be some kind of virtual image!" Olga-Marie shouted, as her trembling increased. Her mind, which was already teetering on the edge of breaking down, took another step towards the looming precipes of madness.
At the sight, Lev smiled. "No, it is the real thing. I linked space and time specifically just to show it to you, Olga. You see, with the holy grail even something like this is possible.
"So take a good look, scion of the Animusphere family. This is the result of your family's lunacy!" Lev swung out his hand and Olga-Marie lurched, as if a gigantic invisible hand had suddenly grabbed her.
"Wha— What are you...?!"
Ritsuka and Mash reacted, but Saber had shot forward first. She would make it. Even without a sword, she should be able to make it to that strange man and take him down before anything more happened to Olga-Marie, surely...!
"You, stay out of this for a while longer. I'll deal with you later." Lev said, giving Artoria a sideways glance and extending his other hand. Out of the palm of his hand, Saber could feel the sudden build up of power. She barely had time to jump to the side and break her sprint, before a great beam of light gouged with a series of explosions through the spot she had been at a moment before.
The cavern floor cracked and shattered, a line running down parallel to Saber as she landed with a roll. The power behind Lev's off-handed attack had power that would not have lost to any of the Alter's blows, they could all tell.
"Wha—!" Artoria couldn't believe, that a magus these people had known possessed such power. This was easily on the level of a Servant's full power attack, far beyond mundane magery.
Lev, ignoring Saber once more continued talking to Olga-Marie who continued to be slowly pulled in towards the portal. "As this is the end, I'll make your wish come true. You may touch your treasure."
Olga-Marie struggled, trying to break free, trying to desperately get away as she stared at the approaching great burning orb, unable to look away. "What are you— S-stop it, Lev! But that's Chaldeas...!"
"Yes. It is no different from a black hole, or perhaps the sun." Lev confirmed her words, and fears without hesitation. "Either way, if a human touches it, they will be split apart on a molecular level. You will experience living infinite death.
Ritsuka, having been frozen up til now finally broke out of his stupor. "Director!"
But before he could run forward, Mash grabbed his hand to hold him back. "No, sempai!"
Saber grit her teeth, still able to feel the build up of power in the magus' hand despite him paying her no mind. Were she or anyone else to try and rush forward they would not be able to avoid that beam at close range. If only she still had her sword, she cursed.
They all could only watch on in horror as Olga-Marie continued to struggle, her screaming for help growing hoarse by the second. "No...! No, somebody! Somebody help me!
"Why! Why does this always happen to me?! I haven't accomplished anything yet! Please, no, I can't die! No, no, no, No! Save me, anyone!" As Olga-Marie floated past him, ever closer to the molten orb which would destroy her existence totally and utterly, rending her apart instantly and eternally, Lev did not even bother to turn to look at her struggles.
"Back me up."
Ritsuka heard that voice and for a moment his mind frozen in horror moved, if sluggishly. Someone was behind him, and he recognized that person's voice. But why did it sound like he had been speaking to himself?
Mash reacted as well, but before she could turn to look, a divine wind blast past her. Faster than a loosed arrow, something ran past them like a hurricane gale. She barely had time to spot the familiar flash of red hair, before the figure was gone.
Lev was the only one who reacted in time, but even he could only stare in surprise.
Dozens of arrows shot forward and missed Olga-Marie by inches. No, rather one should say they were shot around her and hit precisely their mark as suddenly the Director who had been floating began to fall. Lev's eyes widened as he realized someone had shot through the spell which he had used to grab Olga-Marie, and destroyed it at its basest level. "Imposs—"
The falling form of Olga-Marie was caught, as the black-clad man leapt into the air and with arms spread out grabbed her in mid-air. With a flip to stabilize himself with the person he had in his arms, Emiya Shirou landed on his feet.
In his arms, the still form of Olga-Marie could only look with wide, tear-stained eyes up at the man who was now holding her. Her mind could not work out what had happened, only understanding barely that she had been saved, she let out a sob as her eyes watered. Her hands, seeking purchase to something, anything, wrapped themselves around his neck as she held onto him with all that she could.
"You!" Lev shouted, raising his hand at Shirou, with the power building up exponentially. Saber, realizing that this attack would dwarf the one from before, tried to shout out a warning.
But Shirou only smirked. "I'm not the one you should be concerned about."
Behind Mash and Ritsuka, far away from where Shirou and Lev stood atop the hill in the middle of the cavern, a gruff voice softly whispered a single word. "—Hrunting."
"Wha—" Mash barely had time to sense the build up of magical energy behind her, but it was already too late.
Lev blinked at Shirou's words, but sensing the magical energy he barely had time to turn his head. Just in time to receive the full power Broken Phantasm Hrunting with his face.
The sonic boom followed a second later, echoing and reverberating strangely inside the massive cavern, but even the speed of sound could not catch up to the form of Lev who had received the hypersonic super-charged arrow and had been sent flying by the impact.
His frame, which should have been merely human, hit the rear wall of the cavern with such force as it was pushed onward by the Hrunting, that cracks sprouted and spread from the wall and floor easily reaching dozens of meters in every direction from the impact.
"Shirou!" Saber shouted, her belated warning reaching Shirou an instant after the passing of the arrow which had struck Lev.
Shirou turned to look at Saber, offering her a smile and the knight of the sword could only slump with relief at his figure. Carefully minding the magus in his arms, Shirou leaped off the hill and landed next to Saber. Noting the lack of sword on her person, he raised an eyebrow.
"Just because I can make more..." Shirou began, but thought better of it as Artoria's brows began to furrow at his complaints. "No, it's nothing. Here."
Saber received the Caliburn with a confused expression as she blinked, as it suddenly appeared in front of her eyes, causing her to fumble with the sword for a moment. She had gotten used to Shirou always projecting into his hands, but realizing that they were full at the moment she understood his predicament.
That didn't mean that she didn't glare at him. Shirou meanwhile kept his face carefully neutral.
Mash turned around, raising her shield as she realized just now that the arrow had been shot from behind them. And if their Archer was there, then it could only be...
"Heh, good instincts. Well, if you didn't have them, you would have fallen to my arrows long before now, I guess." The gruff voice spoke as she stepped forward. That sharp gaze, like the eyes of a hawk staring down its prey, along with that barely restrained bloodlust. Mash gaped as she saw his face and his figure, lowering her shield in shock.
"You!" Ritsuka shouted, pointing a finger at the new Archer who had arrived at the scene. EMIYA merely smirked, crossing his arms and tilting his head to look at the Master-Servant pair with his most mocking mien. Ritsuka looked back to Shirou and Saber, then back to EMIYA, "But, he should have been fighting you, if you're both here...?"
EMIYA didn't bother acknowledging his words, merely looking around at the cavern which had become a battlefield. For a moment, his eyes looked sad but he shook it off. "I see that Saber was defeated..."
"Huh...?" Ritsuka couldn't quite follow his thoughts, but turned back once and then back to look at EMIYA. "Uhm... Yeah. She and... Saber had a disagreement, but it seems like they came to a conclusion at the end."
"...I see. Well, with that my reason for fighting has disappeared." EMIYA shrugged and Ritsuka wasn't sure if he was mocking them or himself. That his reason for fighting was that shallow. "Or perhaps, I should say, 'reason for fighting you' has. That slimy monster is still alive. He's certainly tough, I'll give him that. I had thought he was just hiding because Saber wasn't listening to his bull, but I guess he had his own plans as well."
"Huh?" Mash couldn't quite either follow his words.
"What an annoyance, but I guess he was right." EMIYA concluded as he glanced at Shirou and finally the two realized that the hostile Archer had merely been speaking to himself. "Oy, you two there. I guess we'll be putting our hostilities on hold, for now anyhow."
"B-but..." Mash hesitated for a moment, looking for support from her Master who seemed as bewildered as she was. Neither trusted EMIYA nor took him at face value, but defending against and defeating an enemy who initiated hostilities was one thing, while attacking first an opponent who wasn't making any hostile moves towards you was a whole other thing.
For relatively normal civilians who had grown up in a peaceful and law-abiding society, like Mash and Ritsuka, simply starting a fight was beyond them unless they were pressed into it by circumstance. Mash, who had been floundering between her politeness and her worry over this man who had been shooting at them earlier with intent to kill, finally found relief in the approaching forms of their two reliable allies.
Shirou and Saber joined them, with Olga-Marie finally beginning to loosen her grip on Shirou as she realized that Mash and Ritsuka were staring at her. Mistaking the two's stare, not noticing the new Archer's arrival and misunderstanding, she flushed.
She wiped away what remained of her tears, but wasn't quite ready to stand on her own feet. Politely or rather, with an understanding of what she had just gone through and almost gone through, no one said a thing about her being princess carried.
"Oh..." Saber said, spotting the white-haired until-just-now-enemy-Archer. He wore similar black gear, but he had some different parts here and there as well as having a red shroud around his waist. Similarly to the Alter they had fought prior, red lines ran up this Archer's face and you could sense the barely held back bloodlust from him as well. "Oh, Shirou..."
"Don't call me that." EMIYA spoke with clenched teeth, causing Artoria's look to only become softer.
"You... You know him? And, 'Shirou'...?" Mash asked, not recognizing the name as any Heroic Spirit of note who had any ties with 'King Arthur'. By now, it would not be wrong to say that the Chaldean Master-Servant pair was beyond confused, as neither their Archer nor their Saber seemed to be worried at all over the enemy Archer beside them.
"I don't understand. With that other Saber's defeat, the holy grail war's conclusion should have been set in stone. The holy grail itself manifested, so how is he still walking around?" Romani spoke up, his distorted voice sounding strained due to the weak signal.
EMIYA merely raised an eyebrow at the wrist communicators before shrugging. "Independent Action."
"...That skill is busted. Busted I tell you, how the hell does that even work?! Moreover, why is he here helping us if he was our enemy to start with?"
"Ah well, we kind of both realized that neither of us had any interest in killing each other per se. So we figured we'd just join up with the others and try to talk it out." Shirou admitted and they could all only stare at the two. "Or well, I didn't anyhow. You seemed pretty into it."
EMIYA crossed his arms and looked away, not bothering to acknowledge Shirou's words.
Behind them, the other side of the cavern erupted and an explosion rocked the entire cave system around them. The tremors continued for several more seconds, as the already weakened rocks continued to shake for a while after the explosion.
"Oh, looks like grumpy is awake again." Shirou said, glancing that way. He frowned and continued. "I've fought a lot of things in my time, but I haven't the foggiest what this guy is supposed to be."
"I, as well, am confounded by this presence he exudes. But I do not believe he can be reasoned with, nor that we ought to spare him." Artoria said, her eyes narrowing at Lev who stood up as his from was shrouded in dark power. "Nor, that he intends to reason with or spare us, in turn. Good grief, it is one thing after another, always."
"...Saber said he was some kind of Demon God, but..." EMIYA offered, standing with his hands crossed and eyeing the 'Demon God' without any real interest. He unwound his hands and shrugged, "Hell if I know."
"Demon God, you say? No, that's impossible..." Roman spoke through the communications channel, but no one bothered to respond to his words. After all, before on the other side of the cavern them Lev Lynor rose up with a mad laughter ringing from the bottom of his black heart.
"Hahahahahaa! You fools! You seek..." Lev shouted out, his face a mass of writhing flesh and bone after the Hrunting. It hadn't been enough to destroy his brain, despite the flawless headshot, after all. "...to fight me, DEMON GOD FLAUROS? Let me show you your stupidity and folly, your arrogance and your weakness, as I reveal the gift of my KING! Ahahahahah!"
"Eek...!" Olga-Marie made a sound of fear as Lev exploded outwards, his form shifting into an indescribable mass of writhing flesh and eyes.
"He's... like a pillar of bleeding muscle, and all those eyes..." Ritsuka stammered out, just as repulsed and afraid as Olga-Marie. But realizing that Mash had taken up position in front of him, holding her shield up, his trembling stopped. He had noticed the slight shake in the shieldmaiden's shoulder, despite which she still chose to stand to protect her Master.
Therefore Ritsuka could not afford to be frozen in fear here; he could not fail to live up to his partner's expectations!
"I see." Shirou said, staring at the tower of eyes which slowly began to approach them as the entire cavern shook. He turned to look at the magus who had begun to cling to him again, feeling her shaking body against himself, he sighed. "Olga-Marie."
The Director stilled at the calling of her name, but did not look up.
"He's right, you know." Shirou said. "That 'Lev', whatever he may be. You're dead already, there's no changing that. You'll simply have to accept it."
"H-hey, that's going too far, there's no need to..." A small voice buzzed out, but was ignored by everyone.
Shirou could feel her grip tightening around him, but he couldn't tell whether it was fear, anger or despair as she refused to face him.
"Shirou, what are you...?" Saber began, but stopped as he gave her a look.
"...Shirou?" Ritsuka repeated, looking at Shirou before turning to stare at EMIYA, who looked fed up with how none of them seemed at all concerned with the approaching Demon God.
"King Arthur! They were both King Arthur!" Mash, realized as she remembered the dark knight from before, drawing the line between Shirou and EMIYA in her mind.
Ritsuka blinked at the excited Shielder, before the realization dawned on him as well. "You're him as well! Her Master became a Heroic Spirit as well?!"
But Shirou ignored them entirely.
"But what of it?" Shirou spoke and now he could feel her confusion as she relaxed for a moment. "I'm sure you have regrets. I'm sure you're afraid. I'm sure you've got a mountain of stuff you want of complain about. But what of it? These are your final moments, you understand?
"Are you going to cower and cry? Are you going to beg for help; unable to change a thing and simply accept it? Accept all of this?"
Her grip on him tightened and for a moment, she shook as her entire body tensed with emotion.
"Or are you going to live your final moments in a way you can be proud of yourself? You are here and now, Olga-Marie Animusphere. Are you going to die without a fight, or are you going to die a death worth the life you sought to live and embody, o Director of Chaldea?"
His words shook her, again. There was a silence which lasted several seconds.
She relaxed and let out a small voice. Shirou smiled and let go of her and her legs fell down, though with her arms still around his neck she could not reach the ground. Placing his hands at her sides, he gently let her down as she released her hands from around his neck.
She wiped away her tears and regained control of her face as she stood on her own two feet.
"...I understand... No. I get it. This is it, huh." She took a deep breath, looking up at him but saying nothing.
"Yeah." Shirou said, smiling down at her and she could only nod as tears threatened to well up again. Shirou walked to the fore, staring down the approaching Demon God, as if it were nothing to be afraid of. Behind him, Olga-Marie could only stare at his wide back. "So..." He said looking back at Olga-Marie, over his shoulder. "What are you going to do? What do you want to accomplish?"
Her breath hitched and her heart stilled for a moment, before she laughed lightly. "So you heard that much. Couldn't you have saved me a moment earlier, so that everyone wouldn't get to see me like that... Sheesh, how am I supposed to maintain authority as a Director when everyone has seen my pathetic side..."
At her complaints, Shirou could only offer a halfhearted shrug for an apology.
"But yeah. I get it. It's as Lev said, so I'll make use of this opportunity to rid myself of all my regrets, all of my frustration and all of my anger!" Olga-Marie proclaimed and with every word, she stood just a little bit straighter, just a little bit taller again.
"Director...!" The Chaldean's seemed just as moved as their Director, as beyond the communication link, several roused voices could be heard. Mash and Ritsuka both looked at her with wonder, hardly able to believe how quickly and completely she had managed to recover.
"Heh, I knew I judged you correctly. You're the proud type who'll make everyone who messes with you rue it for the rest of their short lives, eh?" Shirou grinned and looked forward, raising his hands. Then, with a flourish and a projection a pair of black and white swords appeared in his hands as he faced Flauros. "Just my kind of partner, really. Well, then. I'll work my hardest to meet that determination of yours. Your orders, Master?"
Olga-Marie laughed a little at his words, but accepted them and the spirit contained in them nonetheless. In life, she had never possessed the capability to Rayshift despite being born the scion of the Animusphere family, who built the entire system. In life, she had never possessed the qualifications to summon Servants, despite her first-rate ability as a Magus.
But in death, she was different. Therefore, she wanted to stand proudly here and now, facing her end in a way that she could say without regret was worthy of her life. "Archer! Exterminate the traitor Lev Lynor. No, this supposed 'Demon God Flauros', and get me that damn holy grail! My Chaldea doesn't have time to mess around in a small scale Singularity like this!"
"Roger that!" Shirou grinned, shouting back at her.
"PERISH!" Lev, no. Flauros roared as his entire form charged with magical energy, his dozens of eyes shined in synchronization as their charge peaked.
"Ah!" Mash, sensing the primed power and realizing the danger they were in dashed forward with her shield held ready. "Everyone, get behind me!"
Even as she slammed down her shield, Mash understood that she would not be able to withstand this attack. But she would have to, otherwise everyone behind her would die as well. Flauros' eye flashed and the entire cavern was lit up as the explosion of pure power rocked forward. The entire mountain threatened to collapse on top of them, as Mash shouted out to match that attack with all she had.
But it would not be enough, she realized. She was too tired and still too weak. Perhaps if she had had a little bit more time to try and master the Saint Graph imbued into her body, then...
"Pardon me," Mash heard the voice next to her and suddenly realized that there were two people standing behind her.
She realized an instant later that two Archers, one white-haired and the other red-haired, had walked right up to her and raised their hands. She tried to sound a protest, to tell them to step back, to not get caught up. Perhaps if she took most of the blast, the others could survive, she thought.
But the blazing barriers that sprung out and overlapped with her own shield silenced her entirely as she stared with slacked jaw. The pressure which had been threatening to overwhelm her an instant, the continuous flow of explosions fired by the Demon God which continued to rain down on her like a hailstorm, suddenly slackened enough to bearable.
Two pink, translucent shields had appeared and were overlapping with her own Lord Chaldeas, allowing her to resist despite the firepower being brought down on her far exceeding even the Excalibur from before.
They're almost like... flowers. Mash thought in wonder, as she could only admire those two shields now before her, allowing her to slough off those explosions like they were nothing more than rainwater.
Behind them, several other surprised voices shouted out, but Mash did not care. If they could be surprised, that meant they were all safe. And like this, like this, they could hold on!
"Ah, sorry. I'm gonna drop out now." Shirou said, almost nonchalantly as he let his shield disappear.
"Wha—" Mash's panic rose again as the force against her shield redoubled with the disappearance of the third shield.
"...Oi, a shieldwall will crumble if one of the shielder's calls it quits." EMIYA grumbled, sweat gathering on his brow as he grit his teeth. Two of his layers shattered under the onslaught, causing him to wince every time.
"...Sure, but if we stay on the defensive like this he'll just wear us down." Shirou shrugged, in his hands a bow and a strange, drill-like sword that exuded enough power that they could all feel it despite the overwhelming destruction Flauros was raining down on them. "Besides, I've got a feel for his pattern already, so just hold on five more seconds."
At this point, Mash didn't know who had said that but she had all but given up on trying to not be surprised with their actions by now. If Archer, no if Shirou said she only needed to hold five more seconds then even without this other Archer helping her she would be fine!
With Shirou's forewarning, even Mash could feel the sudden lessening in power. Without his words, she was sure she would have missed it, as it was for even less than a single fraction of a second.
But for him it was enough.
He stepped out from behind the shields and loosed, the acts of drawing and taking aim already well completed before he leaned out. Anyone else, at under any other circumstance would have been flash fried and vaporized in an instant, but the spiral sword responded magnificently to Shirou's intent in that single instant of calm allowing him to step out.
The fake helix sword punched through the wave of explosive force instantly, like a needle going through a thin fabric and ripping a massive hole in its passing as if it had a hook-like end to it, going through the entire attack without slowing down one bit. The spiraling arrow twisted and shattered the fabric of space-time in its passing, creating a safe space in its passing.
In effect, Shirou took a single instant and countered so magnificently that the continuous attack itself was turned aside. As if standing in the eye of a tornado, nothing could reach him as he lowered his bow.
"Bullseye." He grinned as a pained roar echoed through the cavern.
"GaaaaAAaaaAAHHhhH!" The mountain shook, as the explosions which had rocked forth like a river finally ceased. Stone blocks large enough to be called small mountains by themselves came loose from the ceiling and walls all around them, the mountain itself beginning to collapse on them. "I will destroy you! Humanity is already dead, there is nothing you can do to change that! Even if you challenge our King! Even if you were to somehow defeat me, it! Is! USELESSS!"
Mash slumped as the attack failed to down Flauros. But realizing it was nowhere near over yet, she stood straighter once more to hold her shield. The pink flower shield, now down to four petals, was dispelled as EMIYA sighed loudly.
"Ah, thank you." Mash bowed her head to the white-haired Archer, who seemed surprised at her words. He nodded, before looking away. For a moment she wondered whether she did something unnecessary, but then she realized that perhaps he was merely embarrassed. She didn't know why, but perhaps due to having dealt with Shirou, she felt like she could understand this Archer as well.
"DIIIEEE!" Flauros roared, as his power spiked once more in preparation for another hail of explosions to eradicate them all.
"Be silent, you over-grown worm." Saber stepped forward, in her hands her Caliburn glowing and crackling with such intensity and power that both Shirou and EMIYA looked a little unsettled at the sword's appearance.
"Oi, you, what the hell did you teach Saber—" The rest of EMIYA's words were swallowed by Saber's roar as she struck forward with her sword.
If the fake helix sword, Caladbolg originally, had been a vortex of power able to punch right through Flauros' continued attacks, then Caliburn was like a star unto itself as it burned brighter than any other sword, capable of burning anything that opposed it to naught but ash.
The wave of golden fire that sprung forth and drew a line was enough to blind everyone even as they closed their eyes at the glaring golden fire, but most affected by all was obviously Flauros. Still reeling from the Broken Phantasm arrow, the blinding light of the Broken Phantasm sword hit him like an asteroid and sent even his massive pillar-like body reeling backwards under the impact of that burning golden light.
Flauros' roar of pain echoed and everyone had to cover their ears. Had any normal human being been present, they would have surely exploded into nothing more than pink mist by the sheer power of his voice, but luckily the Shielder's Noble Phantasm was still active and took the brunt of it.
Ritsuka and Olga-Marie both still stumbled, as their sense of balance was rocked by their inner ear struggling to handle that sound.
"Hmm... Too shallow." Saber commented as she swung her sword to the side, as if flicking away blood. She brought it up to her face with a flourish, to inspect the damage and her face softened as the sword fade away. "Thank you, old friend."
Behind her, EMIYA could only stare with wide-eyed awe at the sheer power she had brought to bare. Perhaps the Heroic Spirit who would casually bring to bear the power of Broken Phantasms had never considered other Heroic Spirits doing the same. With Artoria Pendragon's magical energy dwarfing his own, the difference in quality was like night and day.
Shirou thought about projecting another sword to give her, like before. But both understood, that this would not be enough to bring down the Demon God before them.
They could try to repeat these attacks, whittling down the Demon God. But they had a feeling they would not be able to keep it up forever. Or at least not long enough to outlast that pillar of flesh and condescension. Their only option for victory was to bring to bear enough power to crush Flauros in a single blow.
"Saber and I will need a minute or two, we leave the rest up to you." Shirou said simply before turning to hold Saber's hand and closing his eyes.
"Oi... You. You, what do you mean, you need a minute?!" EMIYA replied, his eye twitching as he looked at the two, who now turned their hand holding into a full on hug as both closed their eyes. "Yeah, okay. Ignore me, then! Damn it! Shielder, prepare yourself!"
"Ah... Yes!" Mash responded after a moment of hesitation as her eyes strayed to look at Shirou and Artoria.
"I'll back you up!" Ritsuka said, raising his fist to show his last remaining command seal. Mash nodded, giving her best smile to show that she would make her Master proud. "By the power of this command seal, Shielder, I order you; protect us!"
The seal on his hand glowed red for a moment and then Mash's figure burst with power, as if a deep well of magical energy has been connected to her body. "Understood, Master!"
EMIYA looked back and in an instant his bow was there as he faced Ritsuka and Olga-Marie with an arrow in hand.
"Wh—" Their eyes widened and for a moment they thought that perhaps he was turning against them.
But before either could question his actions, he had drawn and loosed the arrow. The projectile arced over their heads and shattered the boulder that had been about to fall on top of them, turning it into many smaller pieces which flew away from them as the chisel-headed arrow split the pieces with enough force that they would not land anywhere near them.
"Good grief. You, crybaby magus," EMIYA called over and the two Chaldeans blinked, before they realized he had been talking to Olga-Marie. She flushed, though this time with anger. But as he turned around to stand beside Mash, his words soothed her anger nigh-instantly. "I leave our back to you."
Was it just to rile up her spirit? Ritsuka wondered, noticing how fired up Olga-Marie suddenly had become, as if to prove to the Archer that she was not merely some 'crybaby magus'.
"DIE ALREADY!" Flauros roared again as he managed to get his bearings. It seemed that he had finally gone from being unconcerned with the foes he faced to realizing that if he did not take them seriously he would not able to win.
"As if! Lord—" Mash shouted back, though she was unsure if Lev would even listen to her at this point.
Even as the cavern around them began to come tumbling down, Flauros charged forward, his eyes glowing with power once more. Three dozen explosions shot forward like a tidal wave, intent on sweeping away everything that stood before the Demon God.
But, the shieldwall of two would not give up without a fight.
The glowing blue-white wall, that Mash finally had a chance to see for the first time sprung up and was joined by the doubtful knight's spur-shield which boasted the power of seven castle walls by itself. They interlapped and reinforced one another, as the concept of linking shields for added protective power was such an ancient one that it even applied to something as ancient as Noble Phantasms as well. Even in the days of the Trojan war, the shieldwall was known far and wide, though by a different name.
Flauros roared, loosing all of his powers like a tidal wave of destruction upon them. He poured all of his frustration, all of his malice and all of his rage at the whole situation. The fact that these foolish humans would continue to struggle, even though all of humanity had already been wiped out, enraged him beyond anything even he could have thought possible for himself.
Didn't they understand? They didn't, did they? Therefore, he had to wipe them all out, himself. Until not even a speck of their existence remained to stain the world. No, even in this singularity, their existences were too much for him to bear without complaint.
"PERISH YOU SINFUL WORMS! PERISH AND LEAVE NOT A SINGLE DROP OF YOUR FILTHY EXISTENCE BEHIND!"
Even his roar was sufficient to cause the cavern's total collapse at this point, as huge slabs of rock continued to rain down on them. At this rate, even were he to stop attacking them, they would all die as the entire mountain came down upon them.
But Mash and EMIYA held strong. They grit their teeth and dug in their feet, even as they continued onslaught by the Demon God pushed them back. Even as the cavern wall behind them came ever closer, they did not despair.
Behind them, the panting form of Olga-Marie could be seen as she could barely stand. She was already all but empty of magical energy, having thrown the strongest spells in her repertoire one after another to stave off death by falling rocks as the cavern around them continued to collapse. Already, she had saved them a dozen times. The ground beneath them shook, the walls around them cracked and the ceiling above the crumbled.
But she would not fail, she had decided. And it was as simple as that, to her.
Shirou had declared a he needed a minute, but as they all struggled desperately on, time seemed to stretch into infinity. They could do nothing but endure. Another second passed by, feeling like an eternity of struggle.
Finally, Shirou and Artoria opened their eyes and parted.
"That's..." Ritsuka's jaw dropped, as he stared at the sword now held in their hands. He had been awed by Caliburn, but this holy sword was even beyond that. He knew it was the same as that other Saber had wielded, but somehow like this it felt like an even greater holy sword as it radiated enough power that everything around him seemed to disappear from his field of vision.
"Holy..." EMIYA turned around just for a moment and at the sight of that familiar sword, even he had to take a moment. "Wait, did you just..." But seeing how the sword shone and crackled with power he realized his questions could wait. Rather, he had a premonition that if they did not hurry, the sword might explode in their hands. "Shielder, I leave it to you!"
"Right!" Mash shouted back, gritting her teeth. EMIYA had already lost five out his seven petals and it could been seen, reflected on his face as pain had wracked him with every petal's destruction.
EMIYA let go of the shield, which had never been meant to hold for so long even without his problems maintaining a shield projection for any length of time, with a sigh of relief as his bow manifested by an effort of will.
He was already out of magical energy; he didn't have any more in him to fire a Broken Phantasm. But luckily their opponent had made it so that they did not need one, or even to lower their guard for a straight line of fire to shoot the arrow.
Shirou and Artoria both held the projected Excalibur in their hands, pouring all of their power into the Holy Sword of the Planet, the Last Phantasm. And the sword responded to their will with its all, pulsating with golden power which dwarfed everything they had seen before and everything around them with its magnificence.
Even Flauros must have sensed that, as Mash grit her teeth at the sudden burst of power she had to bear. She grinned, realizing that even a Demon God could feel fear. Perhaps he thought that as long as he didn't let them drop their guards, Shirou and Artoria would not be able to wield Excalibur's frightening power.
But unfortunately for him, EMIYA had other ideas.
He raised his bow, took aim and drew back. Within a single breath, the complete action of the bow had been perfectly completed and the sword-arrow was loosed. It was a perfectly mundane sword, turned into a powerful but relatively mundane arrow. It could never have harmed Flauros, thus he felt perfectly safe ignoring it. Even a Servant wouldn't have felt threatened by such an attack, normally.
Especially since the Archer's aim was entirely off. He had loosed the arrow entirely too high, causing it to fly over even the stupendously tall Demon God's body. But that was Flauros' mistake. A Heroic Spirit like EMIYA never does anything without thinking it through; had Flauros intercepted the arrow, perhaps things would have ended differently.
But as it was, he did not.
And the arrow struck the cracked ceiling with the force of a supersonic sledgehammer. The impact caused the entire cavern to tremble and shake and it was only then that Flauros realized what had happened.
The cracked and weakened ceiling was a simple thing for an expert of Structural Analysis to understand; he had found the exact weakspot above Flauros, which would cause the entire mountain to come crashing down on him.
But of course, that would also mean that the entire mountain would come down on them, as well. They would all die at this rate, beneath that mountain. But because the Demon God was so much larger, he would be struck a moment before they were, which meant that there was a chance for a counter in that instant.
A chance, which neither Shirou nor Artoria would miss as they grinned. Victory was theirs.
Mash, already weary and tired to the bone from holding on so long, couldn't react in time so EMIYA grabbed her shoulder. The ceiling came crashing down, as the entire mountain collapsed on top of Flauros. He tried to continue his attacks, but as a hundred million tons of rock came crashing down on him, even a Demon God could not remain standing unflinching.
EMIYA pulled back Mash by the shoulder and jumped back with her at that instant, giving the front to Shirou and Artoria.
They raised the Holy Sword as one, the True Name on both of their lips as they called out.
None of them could rightly say that they saw the beam of light which sprung forward as they struck with that sword. All sound disappeared. All was swallowed in light, even as they turned their backs it felt like that sword's glory would not be denied.
The raging winds that tore at them and almost sent them all flying, the shaking of the ground beneath them as that Holy Sword struck down and evaporated everything which stood before it and the raging magical energy which drowned out all other sensations...
For what felt like an eternity they all huddled, until finally it died down.
They opened their eyes and turned around, only to freeze and gape at the sight before them.
Shirou and Artoria stood, empty handed with their fingers still entwined with disappearance of the Holy Sword from between them.
And before them was nothingness. For kilometers, there was nothing. They could see the sky above and ever beyond that.
"Th-they blew away the entire mountain?! No, wait. Even beyond that?! The clouds were parted?! Wait, wait wait! The Singularity itself is collapsing!? THEY PUNCHED THROUGH THE EDGE OF THE SINGULARITY?! WHAT IS THAT SWORD!?" The virtual image of Roman sprouted, as suddenly they had acquired a much cleared signal. He seemed like he was ready to tear out his hair as he stared wide-eyed at the various readings he was getting.
The Chaldeans and EMIYA gaped at Shirou and Artoria, who turned to look at them with calm smiling faces.
"Everyone alright?" Shirou asked, still not letting go of Artoria's hand. This caused some awkwardness, as when they turned around the hands that had been nearest each other were now furthest away from each other, but Artoria solved that by simply leaning into Shirou and wrapping his hand around her shoulders.
"Ah... Yeah?" Ritsuka said, still dazed as he looked the the clean hole which was all that was left of the underground cavern. There was nothing left of the tons of rock which had been before them, so there was no doubt about Flauros' demise as well.
"I'm still... alive?" Olga-Marie seemed half-surprised, but got over it quickly enough. Perhaps after having come to terms with being dead, there was little that would truly faze her at this point.
"Ah... ah... Yes..." Mash panted, trying to get up but after Ritsuka sprung to her side to help her up, she nodded her thanks as well.
"...The Restraints of the Round Table, huh. What an insane sword... No, rather, how were you able to Project it so well...?" EMIYA looked lost between being impressed and just giving up as he shook his head.
"Hey! Hey! What is that sword! Where is it?! Where did it go?!" Romani continued shouting into communication link as they all ignored him. Finally, it seemed like Olga-Marie had had enough as she snapped at him.
"Enough! Is this how the next Director of Chaldea acts? For shame! I'll be spinning in my grave if you continue on like this! How am I supposed to leave things in your hands if you're this unreliable!" She shouted, stomping her foot and looming over the virtual image, which caused Roman to cower before her.
"Ah, no, that's..."
"Shut up! Now listen to my last will and testament. We don't have much time and I have to get things in order and give out some last commands. Hell, if that Lev was a traitor all along then you sure have a mountain of things to fix, huh?" Olga-Marie said, a glint in her eye as she began to laugh. "Hah, I sure don't feel bad about passing away like this. You sure have a mess on your hands, Roman, so you better not screw this up!"
"Uh, ah... Umm, yes?"
"Actually..." Shirou raised his voice and Olga-Marie seemed ready to snap at him until their eyes met. She blinked, once, twice. Before looking away with a flushed face.
With a small voice, she urged him to go on. "Ah, umm... Yes?"
"Well, with that holy grail over there you could just go back and continue as you are. You're dead, sure. But as a phantasmal existence—close to a Servant, really—with a proper supply of magical energy, I don't see why you couldn't continue living." Shirou said, pointing at the hole in space-time, through which they could still see Chaldeas.
"..." Olga-Marie looked back and forth between Shirou and the grail, before tears finally began to flow again. "Y-you... You brute...! Toying with my heart like this...!"
"E-eh?" Shirou flinched, not understanding why she had suddenly begun to tear up again.
"Saying all those things and making me accept m-my... my death... And now you tell me I can return? You... evil man, you..." She spoke haltingly, between sobbed breaths.
"I, uh... Well..." Shirou stammered, not sure what he had done wrong. "I mean, acting in a manner which leaves you with no regrets is one thing, but just accepting it when there's a way out is another. Right?"
Shirou looked around for support, but finding only accusing glares. It seemed like even if you saved their lives, making a girl cry was an unforgivable sin. Even EMIYA seemed to be shaking his head at Shirou, which for some reason made the red-haired magus feel extra annoyed.
Shirou slumped, finding only Saber as his ally as she merely smiled at him in amusement.
Finally, Olga-Marie dried her tears and calm down. There was a small smile on her face, which showed that her earlier cavalier attitude to Roman had perhaps been nothing more than a front for her real feelings.
Few truly wanted to die, after all.
"Ah, everyone! The Singularity is collapsing, like I said! You have maybe, two hundred seconds left? Mash and Ritsuka will be fine, but the rest of you...? I don't think we can Rayshift them back, not at least with the way things are on this end!"
"I'll stay here. I don't particularly have anywhere to go. And with having fulfilled Saber's orders regarding that Flauros, I don't have anything left to do. My end here is fine." EMIYA said, crossing his arms. Mash looked like she wanted to say something, looking up at the white-haired man who had stood beside her as an equal Shielder. Even with the pain he suffered with those petals breaking, he hadn't tried to hoist off any of the burden onto her.
No, rather he had taken upon himself more, to make sure she could keep standing as long as she had. "Ah..."
EMIYA seemed to notice her hesitation and he scoffed. "I'm no good like this. I guess I could say I got 'corrupted' a fair bit, so unless you want a sword in the back when I finally get tired of you, it's better if you don't grow too attached to me." He hesitated for a moment, but continued speaking. "But if you do managed to summon me as my regular self... It might be a different thing altogether. My name's... Emiya Shirou, I suppose."
Saber let go of Shirou and walked up to EMIYA, who seemed unsure what to make of her as she smiled at him. "Don't give up, Shirou. You can do it."
"...Yeah." EMIYA avoided looking her in the eye as he answered, but he nodded at her words anyhow.
"What about you two?" Ritsuka asked, looking at Shirou and Artoria.
"Ah, well. We're going back, I suppose. I don't know if we'll meet again, but if we do, how about we have dinner together. I may not look like it, but I'm a pretty good cook." Shirou said with a shrug. Artoria nodded emphatically as she walked back to Shirou's side, having finished with EMIYA.
"I have not dined with you in a long time, Shirou. It would certainly be a pleasure to do so." She said with a smile.
"...But, that's..." Mash tried to object, but understanding that they were a mysterious pair did not know what to say. The entire human world should have been gone; they weren't Heroic Spirits yet they possessed the capabilities of one, both; they had arrived at this Singularity somehow, on their own. Surely, if they said so, they would be alright and be able to meet again.
"...Alright." Ritsuka said nodding at Shirou and Saber. "But I want to treat you too, then. I—We owe you a lot, you know."
"Well, you do your thing. I'll get her to the grail so she can make her wish." EMIYA said as he shrugged and picked up Olga-Marie who made a noise of protest at him, before flushing at the closeness of his face to hers as she tried to fight back. She tried to say something, but as EMIYA jumped off, her words turned into a surprised scream at his speed.
"You're both just as baaaaaaaaddddd!" Olga-Marie's scream seemed to amuse Mash, though when the others noticed her laughing she flushed and tried to pretend she hadn't been smiling.
Already, the cave around them had begun to disappear. Or rather, the fabric of reality itself in this Singularity was unraveling as it could no longer support itself.
Artoria nodded and leaned into Shirou, placing her hand onto his chest and with an effort of will called for the Avalon imbued in his chest. The others froze at the sight of the golden scabbard being extracted from within Shirou's body.
"Well, then. This is goodbye." Artoria said, resting the scabbard against the ground as she rested one of her hands atop its rim, where her sword should have been. Shirou placed of his hands on top of it as well, next to hers.
"I hadn't expected an adventure like this, but it wasn't bad meeting all of you." Shirou said with a grin. "Work hard, you two. You have what it takes, so trust each other and rely on one another. Do that, and you'll grow stronger, faster than you can believe."
At the red-heads laugh, the two Chaldeans blushed at his words, but nodded back.
In the distance, they could see that the portal created by the holy grail shrunk and disappeared, as Olga-Marie began to operate the grail herself. Though, even from here they could hear Olga-Marie shouting at the Archer who was clearly ignoring her as he faced the approaching void without fear. Around them, the walls and sky began to disappear as well, as the Singularity's collapse entered its final stage.
"Goodbye and thank you."
"Goodbye; I will not forget what you taught me, Saber." The two Chaldeans said, standing next to each other.
"We can't wait any longer! We're bringing you back right now, in 3, 2, 1..."
And at that, the two disappeared, as if they had never been there to begin with. It seemed as if Olga-Marie had already gone as well, leaving Shirou and Artoria alone in the cavern. They could not see EMIYA anywhere, though he should have still been visible. Perhaps he had gone with Olga-Marie after all.
"Well, let's go." Shirou said, looking at Artoria.
"Yeah." She nodded back at him.
"—Avalon." They spoke as one.
The golden scabbard scattered into a thousand motes of light as the Singularity collapsed, leaving nothing behind.
The city of Fuyuki, gone.
The mountain that had been blown away, existing no more.
The calm seas which stood utterly still, remained nowhere.
But even if the world itself disappears, Avalon will not allow any harm to pass upon its bearer.
They opened their eyes and looked around.
The gentle wind and the warm blue skies of eternal spring greeted them as they stood in Avalon once more. The seat of the Soul of the Planet, such was this place, far away from everything and everyone.
Artoria and Shirou linked hands and began to walk away, towards their favored spot beneath the apple trees, where the dancing shadows and sounds of the tree's branches and leaves made for a soothing rest.
"I wonder, how did we even manage to get there...?" Shirou spoke as they walked.
"Hmm..." Artoria wondered as well, but given the presence of a certain fluffy creature she had a fairly good idea. "I think it must have been the meddling of some old magus, somewhere."
Shirou raised an eyebrow at her and she laughed at his expression, but he accepted her words with a shrug.
They walked for a long while or for perhaps but a moment, through the golden fields and the green grass. Through meadows and over hills, hand in hand. Finally, they stopped.
Before them, stood an apple tree. The very same under which they had been sleeping before they had departed. Already, it felt like a long time ago, despite their excursion lasting no more than a few hours at most.
"Do you think we'll ever meet them again?" Shirou asked as he sat down with his back against the tree.
"I do not know. But..." Artoria said as she sat down, leaning into his back as he wrapped his hands around her waist. "They will be fine, even if we do not."
"Yeah, they will." Shirou said as he closed his eyes. In his arms, Artoria did the same, a small smile on her face as she began to drift asleep once more.
As the two lovers fell asleep once more in each others embrace, the World continued to turn.
Author's closing words:
Well, this certainly was a fic and a half to write. I just thought, "heeey, Shirou and Saber need some love and if I just insert them into the First Order movie, it should be pretty easy to write up in a jiffy!" Nope. Took me forever.
Also, apologies to Cu and Hassan. Cu got a whole movie for himself to shine, so he's fine, but Hassan only got "revived" to be taken out like a chump. If you're wondering how he's still there, I just figured since Cu said that he took care of him before meeting Ritsuka and Mash, that it didn't necessarily mean that Hassan died before Chaldea showed up. So with Cu's PLOT DEATH, Hassan got to live for a while longer.
Still, sorry Hassan and thank you for your hard work.
I thought about splitting this up into chapters, but the thought of one humongous chapter which allows me to claim that this is a mere one-shot was too good. This way I don't have to write a sequel or anything; there's closure for me.
Medusa got shafted, too. "I'm a Lancer!" I'm sure she'd protest, but Saber doesn't care! Similarly, sticking to class-names is something no one in FGO seems to bother with, but Shirou and Artoria would be surprisingly careful about. Thus, Saber and Archer Alter got some cool reveal scenes as the Chaldeans realized who they were.
If you're wondering why Shirou seems to much more potent that EMIYA, it's because my theme and idea for Shirou and Saber in this story was "those who have walked beyond the despair". Nasu notes that in UBW, Saber will perhaps be able to walk off that hill of despair by herself, so I figured that was a metaphor which also applied to Fate Saber, and I really liked it as a theme. So I decided to apply it to Shirou as well and just MAX IT. Thus, Shirou here is Fate Shirou who became EMIYA and then who after an eternity as a Guardian managed to stumble into Avalon. So essentially, he's a max level Emiya in comparison to the level 80 EMIYA. One of the main reasons I think it's EMIYA in Avalon anyhow, is because in Last Episode we see the UBW has gears in the sky, yet at the time of EMIYA's death we see that he didn't have any gears in his UBW. So either Shirou in Last Episode live a vastly different life, or he's EMIYA too, since gears in the sky are his thing. Well, whatever.
Saber being described in a way that makes you think of Saber Lily is entirely intentional. Caliburn+White dress+black ribbon holding her hair in a ponytail, right? Similarly, Shirou has red hair again which you might find peculiar if he's supposed to be EMIYA who arrived at Avalon, right? Well, he's got the scabbard Avalon as well and Last Episode evokes the theme of "returning to younger days" as Shirou's mood "returns to then". So I figured that as both arrived at the end, they kind of relaxed and became more like they were in their youths, which thus their appearances reflect. Also, as a writer I wanted to mess with EMIYA and Alter :D
Funny thing, my spellchecker is dead set on always offering me CALIBUUUUUURRNNN when I start to type "cali—", which always makes me giggle. I'm beginning to realize I might be a little bit too fond of that sword in my stories.
Speaking of, if you've read this far into the AN, then perhaps you want something more to read? If so, check my profile out. I have written other Fate stories and will most likely continue to do so, so there's sure to be something interesting there as well.
Cheers and thanks for reading, everyone!