The antics of mortals had always been fascinating to her.
Now, this was not exactly an uncommon occurrence for beings like her. After all, there was only so much amusement that the powers and gifts of Divinity could provide...even for a spirit of her near-unparalleled calibre.
But for her, this fascination had gone beyond the typical passing fancy. She had become...rather enamoured with human life. To the point of shedding almost all of her Divinity and incarnating as a human herself, to walk among them. To see how they lived. To experience human existence for herself and try to understand them better.
It….had not gone well. As it turned out, humans seemed to be rather shocked and repulsed by the idea of a God living as one of them. It was taboo in their eyes. Her human avatar had been labelled an abomination. A catastrophe. A great calamity of Japan who brought nought but ruin and decay. Her avatar had been hunted down and slain, her killers refusing her pleas for mercy all the while.
She had been...a tad upset about that. Her opinion on humanity had understandably soured for a good while after that. The great spirit had been tempted to unleash terrible retribution upon not just her avatar's killers, but their families, friends and associates too. After all, if she was to be vilified as a monster...then should she not strive to meet their expectations?
Thank goodness for the wider perspective that Divinity provided.
In the end, it had taken her a while to calm down and move on, but she had done so nonetheless. After all, perhaps the most important quirk of humanity was how varied and different each human was. No two of them were truly alike.
Her human self had forgotten that. Had gotten lost in her narrowed perspective and held back by her limited lifespan. Even if she'd survived the showdown with the human armies, she would have held a grudge against the species to her dying days. In some respects, she still did. Buried deep and well-controlled, but the lingering resentment could not hide from the eye of a God like her.
By contrast, the Divine Spirit had been able to re-focus her attention on other humans, more accepting and kinder humans than the ones that had hunted down her avatar. And yes, the darker side of humanity was still on display, there was not much that escaped her vast view after all, but the darkness was not so all-consuming as it had been in the immediate aftermath of her avatar's death.
Lately, however, her attention was drawn to a truly intriguing person.
He was nothing remarkable on the surface, average in most aspects and inferior when it came to magic. He was not an especially noteworthy person at first glance, and most would probably not give him a second glance if they met him on the street.
Of course, the Divine Spirit was not 'most people'.
Her mortal might not possess vast innate talent or special skills of any sort, but he had perhaps the biggest heart she had ever seen.
Gods; Demons; Oni; Yokai; Kings; queens; conquerors; mercenaries; pirates; slavers; natives; soldiers; adventurers; heroes; villains; monsters; lunatics; thieves; traitors; artificial life forms; writers; sentient weapons...they were all welcomed into the ranks of her mortal's organisation.
One the one hand, it was not like he could afford to be truly picky. His entire race was essentially extinct for the second time since she had begun observing him, he clearly needed all the help he could get against the threats he contended with.
However, most people would be inclined to keep some of the more...aggressive, vindictive and unstable Servants at arm's length. Particularly that snake-like girl, the Gorgon, the false Saint, the Valkyrie and the Onis to name just a few.
But not her mortal. His well of compassion seemed inexhaustible, his ability to forgive endless. Even former enemies of his were welcomed into the fold with open arms. It didn't seem to matter the Heroic Spirit's alignment or crimes in life, in this 'Chaldea' they were given a fresh start by her mortal.
It was not an exaggeration to say that this approach had earnt the boy many admirers among the Heroic Spirits residing within Chaldea's walls...including, as it turned out, not just the Divine Spirit's human self, but also one of her own lesser fragments as well. It had taken a little effort on her part, but the Goddess was able to establish a link with her human self and share her memories. That was how she had first learnt her mortal's name.
Fujimaru Ritsuka. A lovely name, fitting for a kind young man like him.
It was at that point that her interest had taken a turn for the personal. Previously, she had been interested in Ritsuka largely for his entertainment value, but after viewing all of those memories, many of them tinged with a very 'romantic' emotional resonance, especially after he'd been willing to spend time strengthening her lesser selves, the Divine Spirit could safely say that her opinion had shifted.
It was quite an entertaining and novel situation she found herself in, the Goddess could not recall being quite so invested in a single human's well being before.
His successes gave her joy and brought cheers to her ethereal lips, his failings and setbacks brought sympathy and a desire to offer comfort. Those that stood in his way, whomever they might be, immediately earnt the undying wrath of the Solar Goddess. Were the Age of Gods still in full swing and Divine Spirits capable of manifesting in their true forms to walk among humanity…
First, she would comfort Ritsuka and ensure his well being to the best of her ability. It would be a trivial matter to absorb knowledge from her lesser self's personality fragments, she could learn all she needed to about caring for a valued person from her primary self, the cook and the homemaker.
Second, she would hunt down and smite anything that carried so much of a hint of hostility towards her mortal. It would be a long and tedious process crushing each and every last threat, but the Solar Goddess would carry out that labour happily. It would be a show of gratitude and affection, after all.
Most especially, before any others, she would hunt down that wretched Daji first and foremost. That poisonous little tumor on her lesser self's existence...that dark side of her own self given a form of its own.
And she had made an attempt on Ritsuka's life during the events of the third Lostbelt, a disgustingly cowardly attempt through poison as opposed to a face-to-face assasination attempt. Though the solar Goddess' relation to that little Daji was very diluted, the spirit felt it was still a stain on her pride to resort to such underhanded means.
The assassination attempt on her mortal was itself enough to earn her enmity, but it was the knowledge that the filthy Daji was attempting to usurp her, via enacting a ritual to turn herself into a Beast of Humanity separate from her past self, that really attracted the Goddess' ire.
On its own, the attempt would have been...almost cute. Amusing to watch, even. A nice piece of entertainment.
But as it was, Ritsuka was in that firing line, especially since Daji had already made herself his enemy before now. Her full ascension would be especially problematic for the young man's safety. The Divine Spirit couldn't simply stand by and do nothing.
Fortunately, there was a way she could exert her influence to help her mortal. From what she could tell, he seemed to be enacting a ritual of his own. One that would summon additional help so that he could take on the Lostbelt's forces better.
Reaching out with her powers, the Goddess established a link with both the Throne of Heroes and her mortal's ritual circle. All too soon, she heard a voice filtering through the link.
"Come forth from the ring of restraints, protector of the holy balance!"
Ah, so that's what his voice sounds like...mmm, I could certainly get used to hearing it more.
A soft smile crossed the deity's ethereal lips.
Don't worry, dear mortal, help will be there soon.
In this case, I believe it would be best to ' fight fire with fire' as you humans say.
Reaching out to the Throne of Heroes, the Solar Goddess plucked two particular Saint Graphs from their pedestals and, with a small exertion of power, propelled them through the link at full speed.
"Senpai…please calm down. The summoning will be finished soon, I promise." Mash's soft voice reached Ritsuka's ears, the Demi-Servant trying to sound reassuring despite her own nerves.
"Yeah...yeah, you're right Mash." Ritsuka muttered. Despite his words, his left foot kept on tapping, his right hand continued combing through his hair and his mouth felt eternally dry. No amount of fidgeting could calm his nerves. "But even with backup...we don't have all the Grand Summoning Arrays planted, so we can only summon a regular Servant. That's not gonna be anywhere near enough..."
"We've beaten at least one Beast before without a Grand Servant though, Senpai. Two of them, if what you say about Seraphix's shutdown is true." His Kouhai again tried reassuring him. "We'll find a way Senpai. We always do."
Ritsuka wasn't convinced.
Yes, they had indeed defeated both Kama/Mara/Beast III-L, and Kiara/Beast III-R before her, without the aid of even one Grand Servant. However…
Kiara had only been beaten through outside intervention. According to BB, Ritsuka and his Servants had tried to fight the infantile Beast on their own...and they'd lost. In the end, it had taken BB's specially designed Kiara Punishers to weaken her down to a manageable level...even then, Meltryllis and EMIYA Alter's sacrifices were necessary to ensure her death, while Tristan's sacrifice was needed to thwart Kiara's final gambit: trying to seize Meltryllis' body for herself to escape death.
As it turned out, Kama/Mara had sabotaged herself. The Deity-turned-Beast's apathy and laziness had meant she'd missed several opportunities to see through the plans of her own agent, Matsudaira Nobutsuna, who was in fact aiding the Tokugawa while pretending to side with her. Ritsuka shuddered a little as he remembered how far the man had been willing to go for the sake of his mission.
He'd turned his own organs into the magical countermeasures needed to subvert the Beast's control of the Tokugawa Labyrinth, along with smuggling in a copied Muramasa construct. Were it not for him, Chaldea would have been helpless.
Even WITH his aid and the help of Kiara, of all people, Kama/Mara had come dangerously close to breaking the Master's will completely. Ritsuka had been plagued by chills and minor night terrors for a week afterwards, remembering the mental fog that had begun weighing him down as III-L's influence crept into his psyche. The powers of the corrupted Mystic Code he had been forced to don were...alluring, to say the least.
After all, using Mystic Codes in battle was practically second nature to the boy at this point. Considering his own lack of talent for actual Magecraft, Mystic Codes were practically the only way he could help his Servants, whether in combat or out of it. Of course, using the tainted Mystic Code, even when trying to restrain himself, had cost Ritsuka quite heavily.
But he was getting off topic. The point was, each time he and the others had fought a Beast without Grand Servant support, it had been a very, very close victory. Of course, even with a Grand Servant supporting them it was still no guarantee, but at least their presence lent a powerful pillar of support to Chaldea's efforts. In the First Hassan's case, he had been integral to rendering Tiamat vulnerable enough to defeat.
Even worse, all of these incredibly costly near-victories had come when the Beasts in question were practically the only threat left to deal with. But now they were in Olympus, with the remaining Gods, their armies and Wodime himself all arrayed against Chaldea's forces and needing to be dealt with alongside the Beast they'd detected...while the Grand Servant summoned to fight said Beast, the Grand Archer Orion, was already dead.
Just...just how the hell are we supposed to pull this off?
"Senpai, the ritual circle's finished." Mash's soft voice snapped Ritsuka back to the present as he turned to face his remaining Servants, all of them clustered around the finished summoning circle, engraved on Mash's shield.
"So, who you rooting' for to show up, boss?" Caenis asked.
"Honestly? I don't know...just someone, anyone else, will make things better than they are now." Chaldea's Master admitted.
"Whomever it is that heeds your call, Master, I am sure we will find a way to manage." Heracles spoke up, the Demigod's deep, booming voice reverberating around Chaldea's home base.
"...you think so?"
"Yes. A lack of resources and allies has never stopped you before, if I recall. Why should it stop you here?"
"I hope you're right…" Ritsuka murmured, stepping up to the ritual circle and extending his hand. The magical runes began to glow as he started the chant.
"Your self is under me, my fate is in your hands."
The runes' glow intensified, rings of light beginning to manifest around the edges of the circles.
"In accordance with the ebb and flow of destiny, if you abide by this feeling, this reason, then answer my call."
The light rings began to intensify in brightness, moving up and down in a vertical pattern as the summoning runes began to rotate.
"Here is my oath. I am the one who becomes all that is good, I am the one who swears to vanquish all evil."
Brighter and brighter, the runes rotating faster and faster...
"You, seven heavens clad in three words of power, come forth from the ring of restraint, protector of the holy balance!"
"Don't worry, dear mortal, help will be there soon."
It was the faintest of whispers, carried on the magical winds being kicked up by the summoning, but it still reached the Master's ears nonetheless. It was enough for him to look around in confusion for a moment.
That is, until he was knocked out of his thoughts by the flying tackle his newly summoned Servant was subjecting him to.
"Mikoooon! Master, your loyal wife is here to help her dear husband out of his bind!"
"Ruff! That's right, and Cat tagged along too to make sure you had the best chance possible!"
Okay, Servants then. Yep, there they both were, snuggling up to him on the floor.
Now, it was not uncommon for a Servant summon to result in more than one Servant showing up, but it was always one after the other. Never before had the multiple summons been instantaneous...and they'd never worked outside of Chadlea's at-base system before.
"Ach, Tamamo, Cat...can I have some air, please?" He all but begged, for as pleasant as the Kitsune duo's tackle-hugging was, they were both squeezing him just a little too tight.
"Mmmm, sorry Master, your wife needs just a liiiittle more time with her husb-eeep!" Tamamo started to explain, only to be rather forcefully plucked off of Ritsuka's prone body by a large, muscular hand and lifted into the air. A moment later, a second hand reached down to pull Tamamo Cat off him as well.
"I understand that you're pleased to see Master again, but please allow him his space." Heracles insisted, his voice gentle even as the hulking Demigod pulled the duo away and set them down.
"Nyah!? What the heck! Since when could you talk?! How did this happen so suddenly, eh!?" Cat couldn't contain her curiosity and shock at hearing the giant actually speak for the first time. Before now, all she'd heard from him were grunts, growls, screams and roars, but no actual words.
"It is quite the story, but as long as you can sit still, I will tell you. Both of you will need to be brought up to speed anyway."
"Alright then, but I'm not done with you, husband! Your loving wife will want some attention after this!" Caster called out.
"Muuuu….this is very troubling indeed!" Caster Tamamo bemoaned, snuggling into Ritsuka's shoulder all the while, her promised 'attention' that she was getting now after being denied earlier. "So much danger all around for my dear husband! Well, fear not, your Tamamo is here now! You can rest assured that I'll do my best to support you!"
"Don't forget Cat!" The Berserker in question called out, her head resting comfortably on Ritsuka's lap. Seeing her Caster self snuggling up to the Master they'd both fallen for had lit the fire of jealousy within Cat, a fire that had swiftly spurred her to claiming her own piece of Ritsuka for her own. Since Tamamo herself had taken his back, all the better to cuddle up to him, Cat settled for his lap. "I'll definitely help Master however I can, woof!"
"Thanks Cat." Ritsuka murmured, gently and idly ruffling Cat's head and petting her ears, eliciting content purrs from the Berserker. In fact, the rhythmic purrs and his hand strokes managed to calm the young man, his previous nervousness and dread not feeling quite so overwhelming.
Naturally, there was still plenty to worry about in the Lostbelt, but reflecting on the victories Chaldea had scored already gave the dark-haired teen a sense of accomplishment. He just needed to focus on that.
He'd already made it this far, he couldn't falter now.
"Senpai?" Mash's voice pulled him from his reverie. "What do we do next?"
"First, I think we need to deal with the Beast threat." Ritsuka said, rubbing his chin in thought. "Holmes said the signature was faint….maybe it isn't at full strength yet? The two immature Beasts we've fought only had their influence limited, but this Beast...we can't risk it getting any stronger. How many of the Grand Summoning Arrays have we managed to install?"
"Well, we all installed four before you got here, boss!" Kintoki chimed in. "And we snagged a couple more together! That means there's only one left!"
"Alright then...Caenis, Kintoki and Caligula, getting that final array set up is your job. If the Beast we find is too strong, we need the option to summon a Grand Servant available, just in case."
"Can do boss!"
"I will carry it out, Master."
"Oi! I'm gonna be missing the action!?" Caenis was a lot less enthused than her fellows, the Lancer scowling irritably. "You think I'm gonna pass up a fight against one of these Beasts just to go install some magic crap?!"
"This is important Caenis. It really is. If we don't stop the Beast, it might wipe everything out...you don't want that, right?" Ritsuka was surprised at how soft his voice had gotten as he explained the severity of their situation to the woman in front of him.
Caenis, to her credit, took one look at the expression on his face and just nodded.
"Right...got it. If it's still around when I get back though, I want a piece of the action."
"Well, ideally we'd need all hands on deck to handle it anyway. Right now, the arrays take priority for you, but when you're done, by all means come and help us."
"...yeah, that's fine." Caenis said, hefting her trident and glancing at Caligula and Kintoki. "Guess I'm with you guys then."
"We'll escort you. We know the streets well." A soft, feminine voice spoke from off to the side.
The Servants looked toward the source, seeing twins Adele and Makiaros entering the room. "We heard you talking and we've already said we'd help. " Adele said, simply.
"Besides, we know quite a lot of summon-based magic, if you need the summon ritual started, we can do so in your place." Makarios pointed out.
"Well, that at least makes things easier on that front. So, you guys will handle the array. Everyone else will be coming with me, we're gonna find the Beast in this Lostbelt. That sound like a plan to everyone?"
"Yes Senpai!" Mash saluted dutifully.
"My strength is yours, Master." Heracles nodded, the Demigod already moving to ready his equipment.
"My word, I do hope this is nothing like that fiasco in Scandinavia, my shoulder still has phantom pains sometimes you know." Holmes took a puff of his pipe. "Of course, I will still accompany you, Master."
"I'll cut through whatever stands in your way, Fujimaru-Kun!" Musashi declared, unsheathing her sword with a flourish and giving it a few swings, moving over to stand by Heracles.
Ritsuka felt a weight latch onto his right arm. Looking around, he saw Tamamo snuggling against him and squeezing his arm, a reassuring smile on her face. "Don't worry dear husband! While I'm here, nothing will harm you! Even those Gods you're up against will have to go through Tamamo first!"
A similar weight latched onto Rtisuka's left arm a moment later. Looking over, he was met with Cat's equally confident and bright grin. "Yeah Mastnya! We'll do everything we can for you, woof! You can count on this Cat too!"
"Thanks girls, that...means a lot." Disentangling his arms from their grips, Ritsuka began to ruffle and brush their hair affectionately. From the sighs coming from Tamamo and the purrs from Cat, plus the way they both leant into his hands, both Caster and Berserker were enjoying the extra attention and care.
"Alright then." Giving all his Servants one last look over, Rituska nodded to himself. They were as ready as they were ever going to be.
"Holmes, keep in contact with Da Vinci to track the Beast signal. Everyone else, let's move out!"
"I proclaim you, Tamamo Vitch, to be the Fifth Beast of Calamity! The Beast of Treasuring and my greatest nemesis!"
Holmes' declaration stunned just about everyone in the alleyway.
All, that is, except for…
"Hehehe...EHAHAHAHA!" Cruel, harsh laughter began echoing in the group's ears as Chaldea's four-times-returned enemy's body shook, the Alter Ego resorting to holding her sides to keep from doubling over. Before long, she straightened herself and flashed a very menacing smile at the assembled group.
"You must feel VERY pleased with yourself, oh Great Detective, for figuring out my identity, mmm?"
"Hmph, well, it wasn't too difficult a deduction, even for me." Holmes smirked. "It was simply a matter of applying deductive reasoning, like any other mystery.
"After all, the only reason that Grand Servants would appear is because a Beast is also present. The Grand Servant in question was Mister Orion, Hunter of the Stars, famed in his legend as a slayer of all kinds of beasts, Phantasmal, Demonic or otherwise. Logically, it follows that the Beast he was summoned to fight was of the Demonic or bestial nature, quite possibly both, as he would have a better chance defeating that sort of Beast than any other Grand Servants we have met thus far.
"Thus, we have you as our candidate. As an aspect of Tamamo-no-Mae, you are certainly a Demonic Beast, are you not? Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that YOU are the Beast in question, an assumption which you have just confirmed." Holmes finished with a flourish of his cane.
"Fufufu, what a wonderful little explanation. However, you really shouldn't have blurted out your deduction so loudly like that...that'll be the last mistake you ever make, I'm afraid."
"And why is that?" Holmes narrowed his eyes, while everyone else began properly preparing for a fight thanks to Vitch's threat.
"Oh, you don't know? Well, it seems my 'employer' thinks of me as a threat, enough that I was shackled with a little contract of my own." Vitch grinned nastily, yellow irises and pupils shrinking to pinpricks in the process, tail fluffing up aggressively all the while. "In exchange for permission to travel the Lostbelts freely to collect the trinkets needed for my ascension, I am prevented from ever revealing my Beasthood candidacy to anyone else.
"And I didn't...in fact, you have just revealed it for me, thank you for that. I consider that to be all the wriggle room I need to...go around this little contract of mine for a moment, don't you?"
"Ah." Holmes swallowed, the Ruler looking rather nervous for the first time since they'd confronted the Alter Ego.
"Heh heh heh...I'm going to enjoy taking my form for a little 'test run' here, what better way to do so than by crushing my enemies?" Vitch asked mockingly.
The light in the alley began to dim, the shadows extending and growing to swallow up the group, five bright glowing orange tail-like appendages began extending from behind Vitch. The Alter Ego threw out yet another cruel smirk.
"Perhaps I'll take my time with that Master of yours, mmmm...?" Her tone made Ritsuka shiver and take a step back, almost on instinct. "Yes, he's been quite the thorn in my side, I'll enjoy listening to his screams after all the trouble he's put me through."
"Hmph, as if we'd let you, filthy Daji!" Tamamo, who had previously been hidden behind Heracles' imposing bulk, now stepped forward to confront her alternate directly, with Cat moving in as well to hiss angrily in Vitch's direction. "Is this your plan then? Trying to usurp my original self with this stupid scheme. As if that would ever work! Besides-" balls of energy appeared in her palms "- you'll be going back to the Throne long before then anyway. What a terrible secretary you turned out to be, trying to take your superior's place like this."
Ritsuka was briefly thrown by her tone, he'd never heard Tamamo sounding so hostile before. Of course, there had been times that she'd acted jealous over other Servants taking an interest in him, but this was just disdainful rage.
"...ahahaha! HAHAHAHAHA!" Vitch's laughter had gone past mocking, past cruel, now sounding downright deranged as the Alter Ego cackled herself almost hoarse, even as the alley darkened further and the orange tail-monstrosities extended ever further from her rump.
"Oh this is wonderful, yes, WONDERFUL! Here I am looking for materials for my ascension...and look! FOUR tails, right in front of me! And what better way to prove my superiority, that I've grown far beyond being a simple little 'aspect' of something else...than by surpassing the original?"
The demonic echoes seeping into Vitch's voice matched the mouthful of very threatening-looking fangs she was now showing, fangs that seemed to tear into her lips and split open her gums, for they were meant for a being far larger than her current form.
What looked to be solid shadow began to subsume Vitch's form and flood the alley in full, drowning out even the light from Olympus' skies. The Servant group could barely see five feet in front of their faces, while Ritsuka was essentially blind. Even the glow of Vitch's 'tails' and eyes was smothered by the encroaching darkness.
"This dark is so thick you could cut it with a knife!" Cat cried out, lighting up her tail with flame to provide a light source, meagre as it might be.
"Another one of your tricks Daji? Pfft! What a childish thing to prey on!" Tamamo spat out, conjuring a far stronger flame with her magecraft and casting a bright sphere of light around the group. "My magecraft is more than sufficient to clear… away…"
Her words died in her throat as another light source began to flare up. A light source in the shape of the same glowing orange tails Vitch had been sporting just moments earlier.
Then a second light source joined the first.
Then a third.
Then a fourth.
Then a fifth. Each and every one of them about as large as Heracles.
They formed a roughly equal pentagon shape, forming up around a similarly glowing mass of orange fangs shaped like rocks, themselves nestled comfortably in a jagged and glowing jaw, ringed by four large 'eyes' and topped by two slicked back 'ears'. Combined, they very much resembled the visage of a fox, albeit warped and monstrous.
All of it blossoming from the colossal, shadowed mass directly in front of the party.
"I've never seen a Demon quite like this before…" Musashi whispered, tightening her grip on her sword.
"Hold fast warriors, our fight is just beginning." Heracles brought his axe toward and coiled his legs slowly, preparing to spring.
"Good lord, what a great many teeth you have." Holmes didn't bother to hide his nerves as the detective unfurled his harness of magnifying glasses, bringing up his cane and altering his posture to match the ready stance of a fencer. "Certainly a danger to avoid."
"Trying to copy Cat's Noble Phantasm are you?! Hiss, I'll scratch some sense into you!" Cat snarled.
"You're just giving me a bigger target, Daji." The flame in Tamamo's hand was growing larger and larger as she prepared to fling it at the Proto-Beast's 'face', her expression locked into a look of anger and hate. "I'll make you regret hurting my husb-"
Before she could finish, Vitch's eyes began to glow a bright red, with a similar energy coalescing at the group's feet being their only warning to start moving.
"Senpai, get back!" Ritsuka felt himself get tackled roughly aside by Mash, just in time to avoid the large blast of red-tinted energy that incinerated the ground where he'd been standing moments ago.
The rest of the group had managed to survive it well enough. Holmes and Musashi had exited the blast radius entirely, Heracles had simply taken it head on, while Tamamo had thrown up an energy barrier to protect herself and Cat.
"Haaa!" The energy barrier dissolved into a ball of magic in Tamamo's palm, which brightened in intensity for a few moments as the Caster channeled her energy into a more potent attack, before being launched right at Vitch's monstrous visage.
A single glowing tail swept round to intercept the blast, a oh-so slight growl being the only indication that Tamamo's attack actually had an effect.
"Rreeeeoooww!" Cat yowled out as she, mere seconds later, leapt forward and extended her 'claws', taking advantage of the exposed tail to slash furiously at it. Vitch was too slow to react in time, and the sharpened, magic-infused paws met the ethereal tail. Another growl of pain issued forth from the beastly maw.
The tail quickly retracted under Cat's assault as Vitch retaliated, opening her glowing jaw and thrusting her head forward with disturbing speed, intent on devouring the Berserker whole, her rows of jagged teeth began to glow and crackle with energy as they drew nearer and nearer...beginning to clamp down…
Only for the gaping maw to have a large axe swung into it as Heracles caught up with Cat.
However, instead of recoiling, Vitch clamped her jaws down on Heracles' weapon, elongated eyes narrowing.
The Demigod realised what was going on when the proto-Beast began to draw back her head, but couldn't quite relinquish his hold on his axe quickly enough.
With a mighty flick of her head, Heracles was sent into the air. Before he could attempt to right himself and prepare to fight back, the glow of Vitch's tails brightened massively. Mere moments later, all five tails released bursts of flaming magical energy that rocketed towards the airborne Berserker.
"Raaahh!" Came the Demigod's yell of defiance and slight pain as the magical attacks slammed into him, sending Heracles flying away, deeper into the choking blackness.
As quickly as the tails had moved forward to unleash their attacks, they began to retract again. Musashi, who had been approaching from the right side and beelining for one of said tails, attempted to slash at the rightmost tail, only for it to manifest a sharpened magical barrier for protection as it lashed out once again.
Musashi grunted as the steel of her blade met the proto-Beast's magic, the sheer force behind the blow driving the swordswoman back.
Another tail whipped forward, intent on trying to skewer Musashi while the Saber was distracted.
"Hiii-yaaahh!" Cat called out as she backflipped forward, her own tail wreathed in flame. While it didn't seem to do too much damage, it did at least slap away the oncoming threat and allow Musashi to focus on the tail she was already struggling against.
A barrage of magical blasts and cane strikes from Holmes and Tamamo forced Vitch's other tails forward, flopping down around her face to shield it against the Servants' attacks. After a few moments, however, her monstrous eyes began to glow red once again.
This time the Servants were prepared. Tamamo cast a barrier spell around the more fragile Heroic Spirits, herself and Holmes, while Cat and Musashi ducked and weaved between the field of blossoming explosions that ringed Vitch's shadowy form. Both the Saber and Berserker took every opportunity to slash and swipe at the proto-Beast. However, few of their attacks left meaningful damage...and those that did were quickly nullified as their enemy's augmented healing took effect.
The Servants attempted to attack once more, only for Vitch's eyes and tail to pulse in unison with red light. This time, however, there were no explosions or mana bolts coming their way...yet the pulses kept coming, so why was she-?
Slowly, steadily, the Heroic Spirits began to feel more and more sluggish. Their movements and reactions began to slow down. Their weapons grew heavier in their hands. It felt as if their very strength of will was being sapped away…
"AAHH!" Masushi cried out, one of Vitch's tails having caught her in the left side, sending her stumbling backwards even as she pressed down on the wound with her off-hand, trying to staunch the blood flow. It wasn't heavy, but it was a concern nonetheless. "Master, we gotta do something!"
"Gah, I quite concur!" Holmes was luckier, managing to dodge the tail that swiped at him just enough that only his outer jacket was torn.
Damn it, she's not going down! Ritsuka cursed mentally, before teaching out through the Master-Servant link, for perhaps the first time ever since becoming a Master. After all, Vitch would most likely hear him if he just yelled out his plan verbally. "Everyone, can you hear me like this!?"
Trying to call multiple Servants at once was admittedly rather unheard of. But then again, so was a Master with more than one Servant. He only hoped that they-
"Eh? Master! What do you need from Cat?" Cat responded first, about two seconds later.
"Husband! It's so good to hear your voice like this!" Tamamo was next in line, her internal exuberance a stark contrast to the hatred she had been displaying the second she'd locked eyes with Vitch. "Would you give your wife a moment? Once I'm finished disposing of this filthy Daji, I promise that we can converse all you'd like!"
"Is that you, Master? You've got a plan, right?" Musashi asked, the Sword Saint finishing her latest flurry of swipes and just barely dodging a retaliatory explosion from Vitch as she withdrew to a safer distance. Her fresh injury forced her to lean to the left and essentially fight one handed, but Musashi would hardly let one injury take her out of a fight like this.
"Ah, Ritsuka, I hope you have some strategic advice for us? Even incomplete, it seems Miss Vitch is a little too tough for us at present, if the current flow of the battle is any indication." Holmes chimed in.
"Alright everyone, I'll need you to use your Noble Phantasms and then attack with whatever else you have. It's one last effort to try and damage her enough to make her fall back and let us out of this place!" Ritsuka ordered. "Mash, I need you to deploy your Noble Phantasm first, protect everyone else while they charge their Noble Phantasms. Holmes, you go next, soften her up for the others! Cat, Musashi, Caster, I'll be relying on you!"
"Yes Master/Yes Senpai/Of course husband!" Came the chorus of affirmatives from his Servant entourage.
"I trust I will be allowed to join the assault as well?" Came Heracles' deep voice through the Master-Servant Link, with the Berserker's increasingly heavy and loud footfalls accompanying his re-entry to the fight. "Come, let us bring this Beast down together!"
Mash cast one last glance back at Ritsuka, before moving forward to the front of the group while the other Servants aligned themselves in loose row (with the exception of Holmes, who moved a little further back).
Tamamo threw up a barrier as Vitch lumbered forward, her tails snaking forward and slashing at the new obstacle. The Caster's shield shuddered at the assault, but it didn't fall. Nevertheless, Tamamo winced a little as Vitch continued her onslaught.
"Please hurry, Mashu, this won't hold Daji off for long!"
"Understood." Stepping forward and raising her shield, Mash began her chant.
"This is the castle of fantasy that holds many paths and wishes…"
A blue aura began to manifest at the Shielder's feet, steadily growing larger and larger.
Tamamo's shield began to crack and buckle under Vitch's attacks.
"Answer my call…"
Mash began to bring the shield down as the aura flared bright.
With a mighty slash from her shadowed claws, Vitch smashed through Tamamo's barrier, even as the Caster frantically channeled her magic in an attempt to reinforce it. The other Servants all prepared to fight as the Beast bore down on them.
They needn't have bothered.
"Now is a Castle of Fragile Visions: Mold Camelot!"
As her shield hit the ground, a bright blue shield-shaped barrier sprung up in front of Mash and the other Servants, stopping the oncoming Vitch in her tracks.
A mighty wall and gate began to manifest from the flaring magical Aura. The wall and gate of the Holy City, Camelot.
Though they were badly glitched and filled in with dark blocks of static, a symbol of just how weakened the Shielder had been by Galahad withdrawing all but the barest minimum of his support, they still held firm. All of the Servant party found themselves reinvigorated and strengthened by the walls' presence, the blessings of the Noble Phantasm counteracting the earlier weakening curses they'd received from the proto-Beast.
Vitch's roared and snarled in anger as she lashed out, firing bursts of magical energy from her tails, gnashing and biting the manifested barrier with her teeth while also slashing with her large claws. No matter what she unleashed, however, she couldn't put so much as a dent in the manifested Mold Camelot.
"This is it everyone! Go now, we won't get a better chance than this!" Ritsuka ordered.
Holmes was first to follow through. Bright golden energy formed behind the Ruler as he leant back, coalescing into a sphere-like contraption with a seat atop it. As he sat down, the seat portion extended upward while the sphere itself unfurled into a dozen large magnifying glasses.
Holmes tented his hands in front of his face, closing his eyes.
"It is rudimentary, my friend."
One by one, the magnifying glasses began to light up in rapid succession, all of them focusing their light on the proto-Beast.
Holmes' eyes snapped open, his irises sporting a faint blue glow.
"Elementary, my dear!"
Vitch let out another roar of anger as the light beams sapped at her own strength, while the Heroic Spirits spied various glowing spots appearing on her form, most of them near key limb joints.
Emboldened by having clear targets, the rest of the Servants began their own attack.
"You'll be sorry for copying me like this, Vicchi!" Cat said as she stepped forward. "Time to kill you, then!"
The Berserker rolled in place for a few seconds, assumed a crouching stance for a half-second, then took a mighty leap forward, the sheer force of her jump kicking up large gusts of wind behind her. Sailing over the boundaries of even Mash's shield barrier, Cat began to bear down on the proto-Beast.
As she closed in and drew back her claws for a strike, a large feline manifested just behind her, hissing and yowling aggressively.
"Opulence of Sunlight and Catnap!"
For perhaps the first time since the fight began, visibly deep lesions were opened up in Vitch's shadowy form as Cat tore into her. The proto-Beast recoiled and shuddered in pain, eyes pulsing rapidly as explosions blossomed around her in an attempt to repel Cat.
With Vitch temporarily distracted, Musashi and Heracles made their move.
"Let's go, master's blade draw... Īśāna great manifestation!"
Before Vitch could react, she was barraged with strikes from both Musashi herself and the manifestation of Niou appearing behind her, opening still more deep wounds in her body. Reeling, she was helpless to escape as the swordswoman assumed her final stance, blade blazing with light, and slashed down towards the proto-Beast.
An incredibly pained screech tore itself from Vitch's mouth as Musashi's strike bit deep into her body. Were a close enough look taken at that moment, the observer would see that the central portion of her body was cut so deeply that what looked to be her spine and internal organs were visible.
And it only got worse as Heracles unleashed his own Noble Phantasm mere moments later.
"Nine Lives!" The Demigod bellowed as he released the bowstring.
The mighty arrow came rocketing towards the proto-Beast's slumped form. With the injuries Vitch had already suffered, the damage would almost certainly be crippling. The Servants arrayed against her breathed a subtle sigh of relief. To them, the worst of the fight was over now and all that would remain would be to finish off the proto-Beast while she was impaired.
Caught up in the moment, Mash decided to finally drop the barrier of Mold Camelot, the Shielder confident that it would not be needed.
However, the Servants' internal celebrations proved to be far too hasty….and the Demi-Servant's action a near-fatal error.
For perhaps the first time since her transformation, comprehensible words slipped from Vitch's 'mouth'...signalling the activation of one of her Skills.
"Even...in darkness...does my power shine." The words themselves were weakly whispered, but they did the job nonetheless.
Heracles' Noble Phantasm arrow connected a moment later. A half dozen of the hundred strikes connected regardless, but the damage they inflicted was nowhere near enough.
Vitch began getting back up. Not only were her severe injuries already beginning to heal, but they were healing much faster than anyone had anticipated, courtesy of the proto-Beast actively focusing her power into healing runes tattooed onto her form.
"My power will shine. As I ascend, it will shine brighter and brighter…"
"Oh shit." Ritsuka cursed, knowing a Noble Phantasm chant when he heard one. "EVERYONE, GET CLEAR NOW!"
"All who oppose me will be incinerated, Star of Calamity!"
A dozen simultaneous attacks manifested around her and tore through the dark void as her tails flashed and burned, the strikes burning so bright and hot that it left contrails in the environment. The Servants all scrambled to escape, and in the case of Heracles, Tamamo and Mash, mount some kind of defense against it.
It wasn't quite enough.
Masashi screamed in pain as a fresh wound was opened in her stomach, the sheer force of the blow knocking the swordswoman off her feet and sending her tumbling twenty feet away. Even when she rolled to a stop and tried to stand up, all the Saber could manage was briefly struggling for a few seconds before dropping back to the ground, a worrying trail of smoke curling up from her wound.
Holmes managed to avoid taking the worst of the attack thanks to using his cane in a desperate defense attempt, but the poor implement simply wasn't meant to survive that much damage all at once, being cleaved in two by Vitch's strike. The Ruler himself was left on the ground as well, nursing rather large and debilitating gashes to each of his arms and his left leg.
"NYAAARRRGGGHH!" Of the peripheral Servants, poor Cat took the worst of the assault, a full four of the burning strikes tearing at her clothes, biting into her flesh and incinerating large portions of her tail. The Berserker was knocked back a good thirty feet, rolled to a stop….and unlike Musashi, made no attempt to get up again.
Heracles acquitted himself the best, the Demigod taking six strikes head on, having placed himself directly in their path to protect Mash and Ritsuka. Even as his skin was burnt and his axe absorbed an unbearable amount of heat from the attacks, Heracles refused to flinch, moving his axe to blunt each of Vitch's strikes that threatened to pass by him.
However, his distraction allowed Vitch herself, the absolute worst of her injuries already healed, to bulrush the Demigod while he was still recovering. Channelling magical energy into her new form's legs for a brief few moments, Vitch used the speed boost to charge into Heracles head on, glowing tails lashing out with a fresh wave of magical blasts to suppress him.
The Berserker blocked the barrage with skilful ease, despite his wounds slowing him just a little, but it was enough of a distraction that by the time he was done...
"GRRRAAAAHHH!" Vitch's roar was all he heard before Heracles was sent flying once more by the proto-Beast's furious charge.
Mash tried her best, she really did...but even with Mold Camelot's blessings still bolstering her defences, without the walls themselves and the barrier they provided, she didn't last very long. A few swipes of Vitch's claws swept her shield aside, a half dozen simultaneous explosions of magical energy sent her tumbling away, with another weaker barrage of bolts from Vitch's tails to make her stay down.
"Husband, you need to run!" Tamamo shoved Ritsuka back and she threw up another barrier, pouring all her remaining energy into it this time as Vitch approached.
"I can't just leave-" he started to protest.
"You CAN and you WILL, now GO." The Caster insisted, offering a soft smile. "It's alright Master, this is what we Servants are for, after all. As long as you're still here, we still have a chance."
A loud crackling noise echoed through the area as large, dark claws met the barrier.
Taking a moment to help Mash to her feet, Ritsuka took one last look back at Tamamo.
"Thank you, Caster."
"It's alright Master...now go on."
Another barrage of strikes and blasts. Cracks began to spiderweb the barrier, with beads of sweat appearing on Tamamo's forehead.
Ritsuka began to retreat at last...just as the barrier began to crack even further. With a cry of exertion, Tamamo poured her remaining reserves into the spell, filling in the cracks and causing the barrier to shine bright.
Undeterred, Vitch began assaulting it once more, alternating between blasts of energy from her tail and slashes with her shadow claws. As hard as Tamamo tried...the barrier began to fail all over again. The glow steadily got weaker and weaker, cracks began to appear all over the surface.
She was so drained from forcing all of her energy into this one spell that it was getting harder and harder to keep her eyes open. Even with three of her tails' worth of power, it simply wasn't enough. After all, Vitch's amassed power amounted to a full five tails, and that was just her partially completed form.
They'd been so close to a victory...so close to putting down her wretched, rebellious secretary self…
At least Master will be safe. At least Tamamo managed to save her dear husband...
"He will not get far."
The new feminine voice echoed directly through her mind, overflowing with Divine power. A strange yet familiar presence began manifesting within her mind and despite it exerting the barest minimum of influence, the sheer pressure was close to making Tamamo's ears pop.
"W-who…who are you?" Tamamo was not ashamed to admit that her proud and boisterous voice had been reduced to a shaking whimper by the time she replied. Between her own physical and magical exhaustion and the newcomer's strength, she was too spent to even feign confidence anymore.
"You know precisely who I am. Think for a moment, you will remember."
A crushing realisation forced its way to the forefront of Tamamo's mind. Even as Vitch tore at her failing shield barrier over and over again, she was temporarily forgotten by the Caster as she finally comprehended the Divine presence's identity.
After all, there was really only one Divine Spirit that could invade her mind to communicate with her so easily.
A...Amaterasu. She whispered. H-how are-
"That is of no consequence now." Amaterasu continued. "I thought that summoning you and the innocent one would be enough...it seems I must take a more direct role. However, I require your consent."
At the absolute limit of the punishment it could take, the outer portions of Tamamo's barrier collapsed entirely, leaving only the central portion active, barely enough to protect the Caster herself.
"I can manifest within your Servant vessel and drive off this rebellious fragment of yours...but I require your consent to do so. This battle need not end in failure."
There's no way I can handle that kind of power! Not with this Saint Graph!
Vitch's claws caught hold of the remainder of the barrier, slowly and steadily crushing the fading shields into nothingness. Had Tamamo been paying attention, she would have noticed the proto-Beast's features twisted into an approximation of a triumphant expression.
"The odds are not within your favour, fragment of mine. At best, you will need some time to recover from the strain. At worst...you and your Saint Graph will burn. As you say, my power would be far too great for you to handle for long."
All her memories of her adventures at Chaldea. The friendships she'd managed to forge there...her relationship with her wonderful husband… she didn't want to lose them! She didn't want to lose her chance at romance forever!
But if she did nothing, then-
"Once I kill you...that little Master of yours is next." Vitch growled out, the final remnants of the barrier crumbling into ether before her.
Tamamo's mind was easily made up at that.
Just...one question. Why do this? Why...why intervene now?
"Your Master is...a very interesting human. Perhaps one of the most fascinating I have ever seen in all the time I have existed. Having seen the darker side of humanity for so long, his kind and forgiving nature is...appealing to me. Through the memories of you and your fragments, I have become...emotionally invested in him and his journey."
Hmph, well you're far from the first God to get so attached. But, one more thing…
Vitch raised her front left claw, intent on striking down the Caster where she stood, a warped and sadistic grin splitting her jaw open.
If I don't survive this, then make sure that Master is alright before you...before you go.
"I shall. Now then, open your mind, my mortal self, accept my presence...and let me in."
Tamamo took a soft breath, closing her eyes fully. Even as Vitch's claw swung down towards her, accompanied by a victorious growl from the proto-Beast, the Caster focused inwards.
Here I go. Was her last thought before dropping her mental defenses and opening the metaphorical door, giving her Divine self complete freedom of her mind.
All at once, the dim golden glow from her three tails exploded into searing beams of light, with her whole body quickly following suit and being subsumed in a bright ball of energy.
Vitch screeched and recoiled from the sunlight that expanded across the void, bathing the surrounding area in a warm glow. The other Servants all shielded their eyes as best they could, so overpoweringly bright was the light.
After a few moments, the central sphere began to move forward even as the light faded a little in intensity… just enough to reveal Tamamo in the centre.
But, as both the shocked Vitch and the now-paying-attention Cat could see, it wasn't truly her.
She was clothed now in shining white and gold robes that stopped just short of her knees and elbows, ornate necklaces and jewels hanging from her neck and wrists, her forehead adorned with an expansive tiara, with feathers emulating solar rays. A rounded medallion, carved with a picture of the sun, was clipped onto her front, held by golden straps wrapping around her cleavage and glowing brightly with Divine power.
The sole opening in her outfit came at the back, allowing her tails to fan out behind her figure. Where there had once been three tails, now a full nine, each shining a bright golden in colour and radiating light and energy.
For perhaps the first time since the Indian Lostbelt, since Douman had convinced that 'Final Dark God' to turn on her, Vitch felt shivers of fear creeping up her spine.
If this was who she suspected it was….then she had no chance. All she could do was run.
"Aphrodite. Do you sense that?"
Zeus' booming voice rang harshly through the spacious garden area, accompanied by an intense, domineering pressure as the King of the Gods' avatar made himself known, snapping Aphrodite's own terminal out of her reverie.
"Yes, Lord Zeus. This magical energy...it can only come from a God." The Love Goddess replied. After all, how could she NOT have sensed such a vast concentration of magical energy. "But it is no God of Olympus."
"Indeed. It seems that our enemies in Chaldea have turned to lesser deities for aid against us."
"What should we do, Lord Zeus?"
"Investigate the area. Should any of their Servants be present...destroy them all in my name. They have already claimed the life of dear Demeter, they must ANSWER for their crimes."
"Of course. I will see it done."
Zeus' avatar departed. As Aphrodite prepared to do the same, she couldn't help but think back at the mention of Demeter.
When she had found out about the death of her fellow Goddess, Aphrodite had expected to feel upset. To feel a sense of loss...but she barely felt anything.
The strongest emotion she'd felt at the time had been...almost like disdain.
After all, Demeter had let herself be killed by mortals. Not even another God. Mortals. Such a pathetic showing from an Olympian should be something to disapprove of, right?
But now, Aphrodite couldn't help but feel...ashamed at her callousness.
As her human terminal vanished and her Aletheian form began to depart for the source of the divine magic, one final pondering crossed her mind.
When did she, the Goddess of Love, become such an unfeeling machine?
Surprisingly, it was Cat who first mustered the strength to speak.
"O...OG? That you?" It was scarcely more than a whisper, but it caught the Solar Goddess' attention.
"I suppose you could refer to me like that, in a sense….but no, innocent child, I am not your original self. I am, however, HER original self. I assume you can recognise who I am now, yes?"
Cat gaped and tried very hard to keep from shivering from her nerves. It was difficult for her to even look at the Goddess without feeling a pressure in the back of her skull, the slight urge to avert her eyes or bow in supplication, such was the radiance and might of the Solar-level Divine Spirit.
"Now then…" golden eyes flicked to the form directly ahead of her, "cruel child, I offer you one chance to submit to your better and surrender your stolen power. Cease this pathetic tantrum. You are threatening something I have deemed important and I will tolerate it no longer." Eyes and tails pulsed with bursts of light as the Goddess powered up. "What is your answer?"
Vitch's reply was to roar at her and flare her tails, powering up a barrage of mana blasts. The darkness they were all trapped in seemed to constrict as she did so, attempting to push closer and smother the Goddess' light.
Amaterasu sighed lightly, that soft smile still in place even as her gaze hardened and eyes narrowed.
"You seek to surpass me, and now you challenge me like this? Very well…"
The barrage of projectiles came rocketing towards Amaterasu...only to impact harmlessly against a barrier manifested with a flick of her hand.
Her own golden tails all converged to a single point above the Divine Spirit, a medium-sized bright orb, resembling a tiny star, beginning to form between them.
"Let me show you how frail your darkness is before the Sun's might."
The miniature sun was launched into the air by a flick of her nine tails, where it began to brighten further and further once it came to a stop, scouring the encroaching shadow away with its glow.
Vitch once more cringed away from the intense light. With her opponent distracted, Amaterasu's gaze now swept over the other Servants in the area. All of them were varying degrees of injured thanks to the proto-Beast, but fortunately for them, the Goddess was feeling generous.
After all, they were responsible for ensuring her favourite mortal's safety and security here, it wouldn't do to leave them understrength.
"I will deal with you in a moment, cruel child. First, there are those in need of the sun's cleansing radiance."
Summoning her mirror, the Yata no Kagami, and reinforcing the barrier in case Vitch tried anything to interrupt her, Amaterasu began the incantation.
"God who resides in Izumo. Aesthetically certain, breath of the soul."
A ring of eight levitating, glowing Ofuda manifested around her and began to circle about, steadily drawing further away from the Goddess as her magical aura began to intensify.
Vitch lunged and met the barrier once more, slashing, hacking and blasting away. However, this barrier being powered by a Divine Spirit, as opposed to a mere Heroic Spirit, meant it held firm against her ferocious onslaught.
"Residing in the mountains and watery heavens, Amaterasu. Let this freely become the proof of purification."
Once they'd reached the end of their journeys, the Ofuda flared bright and manifested an equal number of Torii in a ring formation around the Goddess, accompanied by a burst of magical energy.
Amaterasu levitated the Yata no Kagami high above the rune circle, where it began to absorb all of the energy being released from the Noble Phantasm ritual, the magic forming around the mirror in a swirling orb of small light beams. Whereas any other time, they would have been a purple-blue colour, under Amaterasu's direction their glow matched the golden rays of her beloved Sun.
"Thy name is Weighted Stone of Amaterasu. Become the sacred treasure, Mirror of Uka!"
A wave of the Goddess' hand sent the mirror crashing to the ground, face up.
"Bathe in my radiance and be restored, EIGHTFOLD BLESSING OF AMATERASU!"
As Amaterasu raised her arms high, the Yata no Kagami released powerful shockwaves of golden-white magical energy, radiating all through the darkened space they were currently trapped in.
Vitality and vigour surged back into the bodies of the fallen Servants as the Goddess' blessings took effect, their wounds healing rapidly as her rays of mystic light illuminated them. Their fatigue and dulled senses were chased away as their enemy's bevy of curses was dispelled in an instant.
One by one, the Servants all bounced their feet, revitalised and ready to continue the fight! Not only were they surging with energy, all of them now had scores to settle with Vitch for injuring them and threatening their Master the way she had.
All of them prepared their weapons (or in Holmes' case, picked up the two halves of his cane)...only to stop, a slight shiver running up their spines as they beheld the sight before them.
Vitch was backstepping constantly, her shadows retreating alongside her, screeching in pain as her body was strafed by dozens of energy beams. Her shadowy fur was set alight and her skin burnt by her foe's relentless onslaught.
Amaterasu strode forward steadily, her gait matching Vitch's pace, hands dancing around as if conducting a symphony, manifesting what looked to be miniature suns above her to rain down yet more blasts, her powerful attacks easily penetrating whatever shields Vitch tried to erect.
The serene and calm confidence once on the Goddess' face had given way to a scornful scowl. The more Amaterasu had thought about her Vitch's actions...the more angry she'd found herself becoming.
How dare this little upstart, this mere piece of her mortal self, attempt to usurp her. Especially by turning herself into this twisted facsimile of her own Divine Vulpine form...it was a pathetic mockery of the Solar Goddess' majesty.
That in itself was insulting enough, but to find out that Vitch had threatened a mortal the Goddess had deemed worthy of her support and protection, threatened to...stuff him and mount him on a mantlepiece as if he was some personal little PRIZE...
Amaterasu liked to think of herself as a generous and forgiving Goddess...but right now, she was not feeling very forgiving.
Right now, she was feeling a certain kind of anger. The kind of anger that time alone could not smother. No...only by violently and thoroughly incinerating every last trace of Vitch would it be possible for the Goddess to calm down again.
Yes. That would do nicely. The mere thought of reducing the cruel child to nothing more than ash, to be swept away on the wind and scattered to all four corners of the world, filled Amaterasu with a certain kind of savage glee.
Yes, better to make an example of this rebellious little wretch. Scorch her until she begs for mercy, then string her up and present her as an example to all others about what happens where they DARE to cross a Goddess.
Amaterasu's growing anger inevitably fed into her magic, intensifying her formerly 'puny' (by her standards) magic blasts into truly mighty and colossal solar rays, rays that carried the Sun Goddess' wrath as they strafed Vitch's form and scorched her shadowy skin.
Vitch's bestial squeals and screams of agony simply spurred Amaterasu further into vengeful bloodlust. By now, she had advanced well beyond any of her fellow Servants, single-mindedly focused on terminating the filthy little upstart that had been such a troublesome obstacle for her mortal.
The shadow-choked domain around them began to destabilise and disintegrate, for Vitch's failing form no longer had the strength needed to maintain it. The gaggle of Servants, minus the Divine Spirit among their number, all shielded their eyes as the shining blue-white ocean that was Olympus' sky began to make itself visible.
Amaterasu herself paid little heed to how the environment around her changed. Her focus was solely on the pathetic little fragment of her mortal self that dared think herself a worthy challenger to the Solar Goddess. On punishing her. On making her scream and cry and beg for mercy that she would not be getting.
You see, wretch? See how your so-called 'power' fails you when faced with a TRUE Goddess? Do you see how pathetic your attempt at usurping me truly was? Amaterasu practically gloated mentally, firing yet more solar blasts, eyes shrunken to mere pinpricks as she continued her advance. Do you understand your place PROPERLY now? Do you-
Her musings were cut short with a sudden spike of pain through her side, a short gasp to slip unbidden from her lips as her advance faltered.
Looking down in mild confusion, Amaterasu merely sighed in annoyance as she noticed the glowing tattooed lines on her arms and upper legs had turned into cracks. What seemed to be pure golden sunlight was seeping forth from them.
That was no sunlight...it was her Divine essence seeping forth.
Ah, of course…
She'd wasted too much time already.
There was a reason her old self had needed to cast off her Divinity before incarnating as a human. Her full power would have been impossible for a mortal shell to handle.
And of course, if a living mortal shell couldn't handle the Sun Goddess' majesty and might, then this Servant form had almost no chance.
She needed to end that rebellious child of hers quickly, before the Saint Graph failed entirely.
Vitch, meanwhile, felt a surge of hope return at the sight of Amaterasu's current state.
There WAS a way out of this after all! All she needed to do was hold on for a while longer. A few moments more and Amaterasu would be forced to vacate her temporary form...whether by choice or by its destruction.
And her senses had picked up a third presence closing in slowly on their location. A presence apparently unnoticed by her enemies.
One of the remaining Machine Gods, likely Aphrodite from the power level she could sense, had clearly observed the magical energy being released by their fight and sought to investigate.
With a little luck and good timing, Aphrodite would ignore Vitch entirely and decimate Chaldea's Servants for her! After all, the Greek Lostbelt and their inhabitants had no concept of the Beasts. The Common Sense of Man was far too weak for them to emerge with humanity constrained under the dominance of the Gods.
And besides, she was already so badly injured. It would simply be logical for the inbound machine to focus her might on foes that COULD actually fight back. If all else failed, well...there was always her Independent Manifestation, wasn't there?
She could start over in another Lostbelt. She could recover from this setback, from these wounds. All she needed was enough time.
And Beryl HAD reached out to her with the offer of an alliance. He'd promised to reward her quite handsomely, hadn't he?
Yes. That was as good a plan as any.
Curling her tails around her vulnerable face, Vitch retreated aimlessly from the onslaught, with Amaterasu pursuing relentlessly. This time, the Goddess prepared her own barrage of fiery explosions to accompany the solar annihilation that rained down from her runes with every gesture of her hands, her earnest desire to see Vitch dead combined with a sense of urgency from her Saint Graph's rapid deterioration.
However, not even godly hatred and determination could stall her body's degeneration for very long. A few dozen steps further, and her entire form began to feel immensely sluggish. Combined with her inflamed nerve endings screaming at her as waves of pain wracked her, and it was as if she were wading through boiling tar.
This form is weaker than even I suspected. She growled mentally, feeling her Saint Graph straining more and more with every forced step she took. Hold together a moment more, damn you! I have the traitorous filth right where I want her!
Her trembling legs gave out as the glowing cracks reached her feet, all her summoned runes and miniature suns vanishing as the Goddess' control lapsed. Cursing and growling in pain, Amaterasu tried to push herself up, tried to re-focus her aim…
Only to collapse face down, shivering again as pain scourged her body once more.
Vitch saw her chance, uncurling her tails from around her face and beating as hasty a retreat as she could muster. A few of her enemy's blasts had seared the skin from her back legs, reducing her to a rather pitiful hobble. The numerous cuts on her face from Amaterasu's blasts bled steadily and freely into her eyes, blurring her vision severely. Still, it would not deter her.
The other Servants had begun moving the moment they saw Amaterasu falter. Despite their haste, they were quite far away, giving Vitch a vital head-start as the scarred and maimed proto-Beast began stumbling through Olympus' remaining streets.
A very large crash and accompanying shockwave nearly knocked the other Servants off their feet as they closed in on Vitch, sending a brief jolt of panic up their spines at the prospect of a new enemy to fight...only to feel palpable relief as the churned up smoke began to clear, revealing that Heracles had returned from being launched away.
"Come, we must hunt her down!" The freshly-returned demigod bellowed as he led the charge, drawing his bow and firing off a few mana-charged arrows in Vitch's direction.
"Wait, what about Master?! Is he alright?" Musashi asked, the swordswoman hurrying to keep up, blades drawn and ready.
"He and Lady Mash are quite alright." The Berserker reassured her. "They are at a safe distance and on their way back to our hideout."
"Well, that's quite the relief indeed.." Holmes commented, the detective jogging along with them while inspecting his singed and torn suit and coat. "Blast, this was my sunday best too...that woman has a lot to answer for."
"Come on then! Let's go!"
As the trio hustled off after the fleeting Vitch, Cat had reached the prone Amaterasu. Kneeling down besides the trembling and crippled Goddess, Cat rolled her over gently...only to cover her eyes from the intense barrage of light forcing its way out of the spider web of cracks in her stomach and chest.
Cat panicked a little at the sight. Her Saint Graph was close to breaking point.
"Help me...up." Amaterasu spat out through shaky and dry lips, trying to push herself up. "I...I can still…"
Only for Cat to force her back down.
"No! You can't do anything like this, Ammie!" The Berserker pleaded, trying to be as gentle as she could and not anger the Goddess. "I know you wanna punish Vicchi, but now isn't the time! You're super close to burning up entirely already!"
"Then what...should I do?"
"Just go." Cat muttered quietly. "Just...go and let OG have these last few moments, okay? Doesn't she deserve to know she managed to save Master with her decision? I know it's...it's not super easy to just decide to leave, but there's nothing more you can do in this state. You've already done enough for us, anyway."
Amaterasu sighed heavily, gritting her teeth. On the one hand, the idea of leaving while that treacherous upstart was still breathing was so distasteful that it bordered on humiliating. Wannabe Beast or not, it felt like a stain on her pride as a Goddess to fail at killing a single fragment of herself.
On the other hand, as much as she wanted to deny it...the innocent child was right. Her Saint Graph was close to breaking, the Servant container she'd inserted herself into was ruined beyond repair. There was no way she could lend further aid in this state.
But...her mortal was safe. For the moment, at least. That knowledge did bring a smile to her face and warmth to her chest.
She'd incarnated to help him, and she had.
That will have to be enough, I suppose. There is little else to be done.
"Do your utmost...to keep him safe, won't you?"
"Yeah. I will." Cat agreed, the typically chaotic and zany Berserker unusually subdued, a soft smile on her face.
Moments later, Cat was once again forced to avert her eyes as a large stream of light burst forth from the cracks lining Amaterasu's body. Concurrently, six of her tails dissolved into golden magical energy, joining the light stream in spiralling upward and dissolving into the ether.
Though she could not see it directly, Cat could not help but be in awe, knowing that this was the pure divine essence of her 'progenitor's' true self. It was quite a rare sight indeed, especially after the Age of Gods had come to a definite end, so Cat felt privileged to be able to witness it.
By the time the glare had faded enough that Cat no longer needed to shield her eyes, Amaterasu had departed entirely, leaving behind her Servant self….or what was left of her.
The cracks remained, formed into wicked looking burn scars that marred her form. Even as her eyes fluttered open once more and she began taking slow, ragged breaths, that familiar golden-white energy had already sprung up around her as her limbs returned to ether and began to dematerialize..
She didn't have long either.
"Hey...Cat." She whispered, voice hoarse. "Is it over? Is Daji...did we deal with her?"
"Not quite." Cat admitted, unable to keep her lips from wobbling or the tears from her eyes. "But she's pretty badly injured, and everyone else is tracking her down right now. We'll get her."
Though she knew that Tamamo would be alive and well in Chaldea once she returned, that it was rather irrational to grieve like this for a Servant...it was still hard watching 'herself' die.
"And Master? He's...he's okay?"
"Yeah OG. He's okay. You did it."
"Aaahhh...that's good. Hey, Cat?"
"Tell Master...tell Master that Tamamo loves him, okay?"
Just a moment later, Tamamo was gone, the golden sparks sifting through Cat's paws and vanishing into the wind.
Cat wiped her eyes one more time.
"Yeah, I'll tell him OG."
Gathering herself, Cat leapt to her feet and raced off towards the sounds of battle, intent on aiding her comrades.
"HAAAAAHHH!" Musashi's diving slash nearly lopped one of Vitch's tails clean off, while Heracles' arrow speared her in the side.
The ground around the Servant trio exploded with colour as Vitch swiped at them and saturated the area with mana blasts. However, there was little coordination or strategy to the attacks, being more akin to the blind flailing of a desperate animal than the seasoned offense of a skilled and powerful fighter.
"My word, it seems she's getting truly desperate." Holmes commented, the detective weaving through the explosive barrages with fluid grace, his now-repaired cane being put to good use battering at the proto-Beast's existing injuries. "She can't have too much strength left by now."
"Then our fight is nearly won. Do not hold back!" Heracles bellowed, loosing another few mana-charged arrows at Vitch's head. At the last moment, the injured proto-Beast managed to swat them out of the air with her tails.
However, Heracles had been wise enough to prepare and loose another few arrows, this time one after another. Vitch swatted frantically at the incoming projectiles, her internal panic rising as each arrow got closer and closer before she managed to swat it away...
Finally, the last two found their mark.
Vitch's cry of pain only intensified as Cat finally caught up to the other Servants, taking advantage of her enemy's relative helplessness to laugh a vicious attack on her already injured body. Cat's claws and flaming tail raked and scorched Vitch's body over and over, with the normally jovial and boisterous Berserker wearing an expression of cold, hard determination and fury, her usual motor mouth clamped tight shut.
Bolstered further by Cat's return, the other three Servants rushed in to finish off their enemy, readying their weapons as they closed in…
Only to skid to a halt as the land around them cracked and exploded from a thick storm of blue-white bolts of energy from above, followed up by a large laser beam ferociously sweeping the remains of the street, forcing the Servants to scatter in alarm.
Vitch, crippled and debilitated as she was, saw her opportunity.
Escaping the normal way wouldn't be enough, but her new form, with the Foreign God's blessing, already came with a rather large benefit.
Concentrating as hard as she could, Vitch visualised the sixth Lostbelt in her mind.
She imagined herself in it. Imagined travelling there at a whim.
A ring of bright energy surrounded her form.
"Stop her! She's gonna-" Musashi began, only to be cut off by another barrage of energy projectiles from the sky.
Ducking and weaving through the onslaught despite his hulking body, Heracles managed to take aim, nocking an arrow…
Only for the energy ring to collapse inward, taking Vitch with it. She was gone.
"Damn it!" Musashi swore, starting to turn her gaze skyward. "When I get my hands on whoever that is, you're gonna be...sorry…"
Her voice trailed off into a strangled squeak as her eyes finally found the source of the bombardment.
With the lull in the fighting, the other Servants turned their gazes to the heavens as well...and quickly mirrored Musashi's reaction as they too found the newest threat they needed to deal with.
Despite attempts to remain calm, their weapons shook in their hands, sweat began to trickle down their foreheads, and a feeling of utter dread began to creep up their spines, freezing them in position.
"Ah, this...may be a problem." Holmes muttered.
"Oh shit." Musashi cursed quietly.
"I've found you again, interlopers. Now, you will be crushed under my heel once and for all. Never again will you threaten Olympus."
Aphrodite had arrived.
It had been a rather perilous journey thanks to the military patrols roaming the ruined sections of Olympus, but he and Mash had made it back to their central refuge in relative safety. Mash's injuries had slowed them down somewhat, the wounds and suit damage from Vitch forcing them to avoid all of the patrols, since direct combat was a virtual no-go in her current state.
The familiar surroundings of the resistance hideout had offered a brief moment of relief for the duo...that was soon obliterated by the loud blaring of what they discovered to be Aphrodite, the mecha Goddess having finally descended from the Olympus Dodona to investigate the divine energy still permeating the ruined city blocks.
Ritsuka could not help but panic. They'd not planned for this. They weren't prepared!
Fighting a proto-Beast was one thing, fighting one of the Aletheians WITHOUT sufficient preparation time AND with a few of their Servants off on another mission was quite another.
With Kintoki gone, they had no one to pilot Huge Golden Bear Kai anymore. With Caenis gone, they'd lost a Divine Spirit-level fighter from their group.
Desperately, Ritsuka reached out once more through the Master-Servant link.
Kintoki, are you there!?
"That you, boss? Are you seeing this too?! That Goddess just came down and started attacking near the city ruins!"
Yeah, I see it. Where are you, Caenis and Caligula?
"We're just on our way back, the last Grand Array's in place and the network's all good to go! We can start the ritual now and get rid of that Goddess!"
No! Not yet. Ritsuka insisted. Look, we'll do it like this. I need you to get back here and start up Huge Golden Bear Kai, have Caenis and Caligula head over to the ruined portion of the city and link up with our other Servants. If Adele and Makiaros are okay with it, then ask them to head over as well, we can use their support.
"You got it boss! I'll be there as soon as I can and send the others on as well!"
"Senpai?" Mash's voice pulled Ritsuka back to their current surroundings. The Shielder was seated on one of spare supply boxes in the corner, fiddling around with some of the damaged sections of her Ortinax armour. "Your orders for me?"
"Stay here and fix your armour." He insisted. On her slight look of disappointment and sadness, he sighed. Walking over to the Demiservant, he placed a supportive hand on her shoulder and offered her as reassuring a smile as he could muster. "Look, I know you want to be involved, but I can't risk you getting into combat in that condition, especially with one of the Greek Gods."
"That said, we'll still need the Black Barrel, okay? So be ready for when I give the word."
"Yes Senpai! I'll be waiting for your order!"
"Alright then, now...wait." Ritsuka cocked his head, hearing some sort of faint humming sound from the distance. "Do you hear that?"
"I need to go."
"Senpai wait, where are you going!?"
Ignoring Mash's call, the Master took to the stairs of the resistance hideout and began running up to the rooftop to get a better view. He'd heard this sound once before.
Just after the raid on the Olympus maintenance temple.
Ignoring his growing breathlessness in favour of the shivers in his spine, Ritsuka finally burst through the door to the hideout's roof. Twisting this way and that, he searched for the source of the noise.
It didn't take him long to find it, hovering near the ruined sections of Olympus and directly over Demeter's wreckage.
It was Aphrodite herself...and she was starting to sing again.
"Oh sh-...Mash!" He called, turning back and tearing down the stairs, shoving his fingers into his ears as a cold sweat broke over his skin. "COVER YOUR EARS! NOW!"
It seemed like Deja vu, really.
As the relentless siren song of the mechanical love Goddess clawed and scraped at his newfound sanity, Heracles dashed headlong through the rubble strewn, wrecked streets of Olympus. His large hands were clamped firmly over his ears all the while, forcing him to stow his weapons for the time being.
Such a pose was hardly fitting for perhaps the greatest son of Zeus, the strongest man in the world and the most famous Greek Hero, but if his dignity must be sacrificed to preserve his sanity, then that was an acceptable arrangement indeed.
What few patrols he came across were easily dealt with, their weaponry and armour, or chassis in the case of the automata, were no match for the strength of a Demigod. Especially a Demigod further enhanced with the Klironomia of the Lostbelt's own pantheon. For as much as Heracles despised the mecha-Gods for their tyranny over this timeline's humans, even he had to admit that their 'blessings' were very useful indeed.
He needed to find his fellow Servants. While he did not doubt they possessed their own mental fortitude and willpower, they lacked the indomitable will necessary to fight off Aphrodite's influence for very long.
After all, their fallen fellows had turned on and killed each other after mere moments of exposure to the Goddess' song during the maintenance temple raid. He himself had only managed to fight off her enthralling charms thanks to his Madness Enhancement and his unbreakable bond with his Master.
Tamamo Cat possessed the Madness Enhancement, true, and he did not doubt that she too would follow Ritsuka to the ends of the Earth should he ask it of her, but the same could not be said of Holmes and Musashi.
He had to find them. He needed to get them free of her song, before-
"There you are, woof!" A sudden exclamation pulled the Demigod's attention to his left. Whirling around, he reached for his weapons on pure instinct...only to stop once the newcomer's face came into view and he the spark of recognition flashed through his mind. " I got separated from you all when that Goddess attacked us! You found the others yet?!"
"No, I'm afraid I've not." He admitted, moving his head this way and that to keep an eye out for any Olympian patrols and keep an eye on Aphrodite, just to make sure the mecha-Goddess had not noticed them. Thankfully, the pressure in his head had abated and her song had cut off, so the two Berserkers could now make their way towards her if they needed to do so. "Come, we must keep on guard and head for the central ruins. That was where I last saw Lady Musashi and Lord Holmes."
"Right, I'm with ya."
Noticing a conspicuous lack of Cat's Caster counterpart, Heracles' eyes narrowed in confusion.
"Where is your Caster self? I last saw her collapse while fending off the larval Beast."
At this, Cat's expression turned melancholic and crestfallen.
"OG...didn't make it. Amatie used her strength up too much when she was in control." Cat admitted, casting her gaze to the ground. "I know she's back in Chaldea, but still...it still hurts, you know?"
"I see...but I am sorry regardless." A hand reached out to gently rest itself on Cat's shoulder, tenderly tilting her head up with a stray figure so that her eyes met Heracles'. "For now, we must continue on, but you have my word and promise...we will find this 'Tamamo-Vitch' and finish her off. We will not let your fellow's sacrifice go unavenged."
Making sure to keep out of Aphrodite's direct line of sight by sticking to the sideroads, or what was left of them at this point, the duo zigzagged their way towards the centre of the ruins, heads twisting this way and that to keep an eye on their surroundings.
Despite their precautions, the two Berserkers ran afoul of Olympian patrols several times, though Heracles' overwhelming raw power was enough to crush the patrols, while Cat's surprising agility proved more than sufficient to chase down and stragglers before they could alert their fellows as to the Heroic Spirits' presence.
Eventually, after several minutes of covert approach, the duo came across a rather grisly scene in the middle of a particularly rubble-saturated street.
Blood from fallen Olympian soldiers was splattered everywhere, to the point that it coated the wreckage of their accompanying automata. Their armour was cleaved open with savage slashes and limbs were hacked clean off, with the artificial soldiers suffering similar wounds.
There, in the centre of the carnage, stood a familiar figure…
As soon as Heracles saw her, however, his muscles tensed and he stopped still.
She didn't look herself, even from this distance, he could tell.
Her stance was far too...primal. Too angry. Even while she was supposedly resting, Heracles could feel the waves of hatred and hostility radiating off of her form.
His suspicions were only confirmed when Musashi's head twitched just far enough around that one of her eyes became visible. A normal person wouldn't have seen anything amiss at this range, but the Demigod could see quite clearly how her irises and pupils had shrunken to mere pinpricks. How her breathing was ragged.
How her stance tightened and her hand gripped her sword once more. As if she was preparing to-
"Wowee, you really went to town on those guys!" Cat called out. The Berserker completely failing to pick up on their teammate's hostile intent and making to approach Musashi...until Heracles' large hand clamped down on her shoulder and kept her where she was. "Hey, what are you doing?!"
"Hold, Lady Cat. Something is wrong." The Demigod rumbled, free hand reaching for the axe at his back. "I fear that our ally may be compromised by the love Goddess' song."
"Huh? C'mon! What could be wrong with her?!" Cat scoffed. "I mean sure, that song was a bit loud and crazy to listen to, but that's all it was right?"
Intriguing…does her form of madness stop others tampering with her mind? The Demigod could not help but muse. In the short time he had interacted with her with a rational enough mind to remember her, he had found that calling his fellow Berserker 'scatterbrained' would be a rather gross understatement.
She seemed utterly incapable of holding a single train of thought for too long and spoke in strange metaphors and analogies, yet was still reliable and useful to their Master nonetheless.
"I'm afraid not, Lady Cat. The love Goddess' song can enthrall even the strongest-willed Heroic Spirits to do as she pleases, or drive them to complete madness if she chooses. We must be war-" Heracles began to explain.
Only for the gust of wind following Musashi's lightning-fast approach to cut him off, a surge of adrenaline and spike of desperation lanced up his spine as the Berserker started to move.
In her inability to properly read the hostility in Musashi's body language, the frenzied killing intent in her gaze, had led to her stepping in front of Heracles to talk to him. In doing so, her tail had fanned out and obscured his view of the sword saint for a moment or two.
It was all the distraction the enthralled Saber had needed to begin her attack.
"MOVE ASIDE!" Heracles bellowed, stretching out his hand and shoving his fellow Berserker to the ground as gently as he could, better than her being directly in Musashi's path.
Axe met sword as Musashi caught up, blade stabbing toward Cat's former position before it was intercepted. Had Heracles been a couple of seconds slower, she would have been skewered. Cat herself rolled a few metres away, courtesy of her fellow's Demigod strength, before coming to a halt.
After a moment, she pushed herself up just in time to see Heracles block yet another attempted strike from Musashi. The aggression in her arms fuelling her ferocious assault was only matched by the crazed snarl carved onto her face.
Cat narrowed her eyes, determination pushing her to her feet as she prepared to join the fight.
Even if it was her own ally, she couldn't hesitate! She'd promised her original that she'd tell Master about what had happened, and a Tamamo never breaks a prom-
A sharp pain blossomed in her chest, a spurt of blood flying from the fresh hole in her chest. As Cat glanced down in shock, she could just make out a blood-soaked fist protruding from the wound before it was pulled back and out her back.
She collapsed to the floor, coughing and wheezing pitifully. Despite the mortal wound, she tried to push herself up again...tried to stand…
She couldn't fail here! Not yet! She...she still had to find Master first. Still had to tell him…
Vision fading fast, Cat could just make out the shoes of the figure that had attacked her from her prone position, now approaching the duelling Heracles and Musashi with the intent to engage.
Cat tried shouting a warning, but all that came out was weak, strangled, blood-soaked gurgles.
The tap-tap-tapping of her assailant's cane was the last she heard before consciousness left her and her Saint Graph disintegrated completely.
"Look at you all, so easy to bend to my will...squabble amongst yourselves for now. Once I have hunted down the rest of your rabble...I will return for YOU, impudent Godspawn."
Aphrodite's booming voice washed over the city wreckage. Despite being a machine, her words absolutely dripped with contempt for the ants beneath her.
Not that any of them were paying too close attention to her right now. All those within hearing range were otherwise preoccupied.
Damn her! Heracles cursed as Cat faded into ether in his peripheral vision. A surge of righteous and vengeful fury filled the Demigod for a brief few moments as he turned his axe on his attackers...only to falter as he remembered who they were.
These were not his enemies, but his allies and brothers in arms against the Lostbelt's forces, driven to a maddened frenzy by the cursed Love Goddess' song.
As Musashi attacked again, an angry scream tearing from her lips, Heracles brought up his axe to defend himself while considering his options.
His most powerful techniques like Nine Lives were not an option here, not if he wanted to break Aphrodite's hold on his allies without fatally harming them. He would need to wear their stamina down and incapacitate them when they began to falter and tire. After all, a tired and sluggish opponent was more likely to make mistakes and leave their guard open than a fresh fighter.
Yes, that was as good a plan as any.
This time, Holmes joined in the assault, the enthralled detective unfurling his harness of magnifying glasses to barrage the Demigod with concentrated sunlight. The thickest of the beams were aimed straight at his eyes, and even with his naturally superhuman physique the bright glare dazzled and overwhelmed him.
A bloodthirsty grin appeared on Musashi's features as she dove forward, intent on making a crippling strike while her opponent was off guard.
Unfortunately for her, even with one of his senses impaired, Heracles was still a beyond formidable opponent.
Through training, discipline and force for will, the Berserker took a calming breath to steady himself, tuning his hearing to block out all the ambient sounds. To focus solely on the footsteps and movements of his current opponents. They were what mattered now.
In a moment, it all faded to almost nothing; the flames burning amid the rubble of Olympus' destroyed sections; the distant cries of the yet-unharmed populace; the humming and whirring of Aphrodite's mechanical form as the Goddess made to depart the area; the heavy footfalls of the Olympian soldiers as they combed through the wreckage for survivors, he could hear none of it.
Musashi's footsteps, and the whistling of her blade as it cut through the air and dove toward him, were much clearer.
Musashi's blade was violently thrown aside by a strike from the Demigod's axe, forcing the swordswoman to evade as his foot flew forward. Had she not rolled out of the way, she would have been flung back by the impact.
The next target was Holmes, the detective leaping out of the way of Heracles' first kick while the following swipe of his hand shattered about half the magnifying glasses in his harness at once. Holmes attempted to dodge the next kick, but Heracles' superior reflexes were one step ahead. His foot caught the Ruler in the chest, sending him flying back and into some nearby rubble.
There was no time to check on or subdue him, however, before Musashi appeared again to make another attack, a katana in each hand as she charged. However, this time she yelled out:
"Alright, I'll aim for that!"
Her cry, accompanied by sparks of lightning and swirling winds gathering about her person, told the Berserker that his opponent had activated one of her Personal Skills.
But which one?
The sword saint attacked again, slicing and slashing with contemptuous ease as she tried to pierce the Demigod's defenses. Heracles stood his ground, reserving his comparably more lethal axe for blocking her strikes while lashing out only with foot sweeps and palm strikes whenever he saw openings in Musashi's guard.
However, he could not help but notice something strange about his opponent…she was striking much the same as normal, but the ripples in the air he felt, plus the accompanying vibrations as her blades were blocked by his axe, seemed to have doubled. Almost as if…
Was she somehow striking twice with one physical swing?
It was certainly possible, Heracles himself could more than attest to the viability of the feat. As he recalled, there was at least one other Heroic Spirit in Chaldea he had encountered who had a similar attack as HIS Noble Phantasm. Something about swallows and laundry poles, if he recalled right…
Regardless, his opponent's double strike ability gave her an undeniable edge. The combination of her sheer speed and agility at swinging her katanas, plus the extra strikes meant that, no matter how fast Heracles was, a stray hit or two inevitably got by his defences. It reminded him all too much of his battle against Castor in the Olympus Maintenance Temple, except that this time HE was on the receiving end of being worn down slowly but steadily.
Of course, since Musashi lacked both the natural power of a Demigod and the Klironomia enhancements of a Greek Lostbelt-aligned Servant (in Heracles' unique case, both, thanks to the salvaged Zeus Klironomia being compatible with him) her piercing strikes were an annoyance at best and a minor sting at worst.
All he needed to do was keep the worst of Musashi's strikes, aimed at his most critical areas, away. She couldn't keep her Skill active constantly, once it ran down he could-
"Elementary, my dear."
He'd been so focused on fending off the rabid swordswoman in front of him, he'd allowed that tunnel-vision to blind him to any alternate threats. That was a rather severe lapse in concentration on his part.
After all, he'd forgotten all about Holmes.
"Boss! BOSS! I'm back, Boss!" The bellows of the Berserker were actually quite the relief to Ritsuka's ears as he watched Kintoki practically shoulder the door to the resistance hideout wide open, such was his haste to return.
After all, after all, now they had a fighting chance. All they needed to do was stall Aphrodite for long enough.
"Kintoki!" Ritsuka met the oncoming Servant at the stairs to the upper level, before falling as close into step with him as he could while the pair moved through the hideout. "I'm glad you're here! Everyone else on their way?"
"Yep! They're on the way to go stall that Goddess while I get Bear warmed up!"
"Got it. Mash!" He called out, turning his attention to the other person in the room.
"Yes, Senpai?" Her head snapped up instantly from her maintenance work on the Ortinax, aided by advice from Da Vinci by communicator, single visible eye narrowed in concentration.
"Once you've got your suit within working condition, get the roof...we'll need the Black Barrel ready."
A guttural cry of exertion left his lips as Heracles evaded Musashi's next few strikes. Placing his axe on the ground, he swung with enough force to tear up large chunks of the already ruined ground and send it flying at the enthralled Servants, giving himself a few moments of reprieve.
In the short lull in battle, the Demigod cursed himself for his lack of awareness regarding Holmes. In ignoring the Ruler, he'd given the latter time to charge and deploy his Noble Phantasm.
It had only taken that one moment for the fight to turn against him.
The bright light that had bathed him from all directions had weakened him, he was sure of it. Musashi's strikes felt as if they hit harder and could pierce his defense more easily than they had done before. He had tried activating Mind's Eye to avoid her assault for a while and give himself some breathing room...only to have her blades strike him anyway.
If what had happened to Vitch was any indication, then there were likely vulnerabilities highlighted on his body that Musashi would undoubtedly target. He wasn't about to let her get the opportunity.
Large gusts of air whipped by as Musashi's voilent slices tore up the ground he'd flung at her, while Holmes not so gracefully flung himself aside to avoid the remainder. The instant they were in view, the Demigod began firing mana arrows.
Most were targeted at her non-vital areas, and almost none of them actually hit. The swordswoman and detective avoided the arrows they could, and swatted aside those they couldn't. It was in part a testament to their agility...but mostly thanks to Heracles deliberately allowing his focus and precision to slack while aiming. After all, the barrage was not meant to defeat his opponents, but merely hold them at bay until Holmes' Noble Phantasm effects wore off.
Then he could go on the offensive and regain control of the fight.
Slowly but surely, the brainwashed Servants weathered the storm of arrows flying at and by them. Several times, Holmes attempted retaliation with blasts of concentrated light from his array of magnifying glasses, but gave up once he realised that blinding his opponent was not a very viable option, given his enhanced senses and supreme skill as an archer.
Eventually, however, Musashi drew close enough for a strike, that hate-filled expression still unwavering. Given the time that had passed, though, Heracles decided that he'd allow this one attack through, stowing his bow with this primary hand while reaching for his axe with his off hand.
If the effects of Holmes' Noble Phantasm and Musashi's Skill had worn off, then he could go on the offensive at last, if not...he'd simply need to endure their attacks a while longer.
He couldn't dawdle too long, though. After all, Aphrodite was making her way towards his Master and Lady Mash and as far as he was aware, Kintoki and his team had not arrived back yet from his assignment. He was the only one who could pilot their mecha. Yes, Lady Mash still had the Black Barrel as their ultimate answer to the Gods...but trying to deploy it when Aphrodite was still active would be tantamount to suicide.
Better to weaken and hopefully cripple her first before deploying the Barrel, without Kintoki's mecha...their chances against Aphrodite were fairly slim. After all, they'd had a hard enough time against Demeter, one of the Olympians perhaps most unsuited for combat as the fertility Goddess. Aphrodite would likely be a tougher challenge.
Musashi swung her sword at Heracles' torso with an angry snarl.
The blade found its mark and slashed him across the chest. It hurt...a little, but it was less painful than the previous strikes. A quick glance at the injury by his practiced eye told the Berserker that it wasn't as bad as the previous hits he'd taken, either. It had barely broken his skin, after all.
So, they were once again on equal ground, so to speak, with no Noble Phantasm or Skills to tip the scales in either party's favour.
It was time to go on the attack.
And perhaps it was also time to finally make use of his father's unwitting 'donation', at last. He'd been content to allow the Klironomia coursing through him to act on their own accord, even if Hephaestus had taught him how to direct their power to certain areas of his body, or even certain senses, during the bonding process. All it required were mental commands.
His free hand released its grip on his axe, only for the Demigod to use it to punch Musashi in the face, while his primary hand caught her left katana. As his fingers tightened around the blade, the blood vessels within began to glow golden as the Klironomia, responding to their new vessel's orders, reinforced the surrounding skin, muscle and bone to the point that the blade might as well have been a wooden training sword for how effective it was.
Before the swordswoman could swing her other blade, Heracles swept her legs out from under her with his right foot and launched her away with a kick to the chest from his left.
With the greater threat neutralised for the moment, the Berserker turned his attention to Holmes.
The detective's effort was a valiant one, but the Ruler was a non-fighter against the son of Zeus and greatest Hero of Greece. It would never have been a fair fight even if Heracles had lost three of his limbs.
The Klironomia reinforcement combined with his natural durability ensured Holmes' Baritsu bounced off his chest with minimal damage as the Demigod charged head-on into his opponent, sweeping him off his feet and sending him into the air.
Heracles followed up immediately, grabbing Holmes by the neck and choke slamming him into the ground, churning up the streets around them with the force of the impact.
As the dust began to fade from view, he could see that Holmes was still trying to get up, despite the damage he'd just taken. His face was bruised with a few bleeding cuts on his forehead and cheeks, most of his magnifying glasses were ruined and his clothes were visibly torn in a half dozen areas.
His attempt was cut short as a muscular hand wrapped around his throat and forced him back down to the ground. The Demigod's grip slowly tightened and constricted Holmes' throat, knowing that he'd stop resisting soon enough.
Steadily, Holmes' struggles weakened and slowed, hands rapidly going from the floor to his throat, scrabbling and clawing at his opponent's hand, trying to give himself room to breathe.
It was a futile effort. He couldn't hope to break Heracles' grip with the sheer strength difference between them, it would only be a while longer before he-
"I'll show you the true essence of the Five Rings!"
Glancing around, a minor spike of panic shooting up his spine, Heracles found Musashi, recovered from his assault, preparing to unleash her Noble Phantasm.
Ordinarily, he would try to run or dodge, but she was already halfway through the preparation. He could see the figure of Niou, the Divine Figure of Kulika, manifesting behind her as she stood in place.
There was no time.
If he tried to flee or dodge, she'd catch him with her final strike, potentially costing him at least one of his lives, if not more. The Niou itself, though...those blows might be survivable with the Klironomia's protection.
Well, if his Master had pulled crazier stunts before…
Here we go, then.
Quickly tossing Holmes aside to keep him out of the way of their fight, Heracles coiled his legs, channeling most of the Klironomia's power to strengthen his jump while the remainder reinforced his body, and kicked off in Musashi's direction.
As he rocketed towards the swordswoman, he reversed his grip on his axe. The Divine Figure had fully manifested by now, its attention turning toward him as all four arms readied their blades.
Looks like he'd be taking some attacks from the Niou before he reached Musashi, after all, the least he could do was try to block as many of them as he could.
The first strike was just barely deflected by his axe.
The second strike missed him by a hair's breadth, such was his speed as he drew closer to Musashi.
The remaining two strikes bored into his chest. The Klironomia did all they could to limit and repair the damage, which thankfully was not severe enough to take one of his lives, but his nerve endings still screamed at the Demigod as he bit back a cry of pain.
He couldn't falter now, he was almost there!
The swordswoman had assumed her final stance, blade lighting up with bright white light as she prepared to unleash the power of the void….until Heracles tackled her dead on.
They hit the ground and rolled together, separating after a few seconds, with Musashi coming to a stop a short distance away from the Berserker. Snarling in anger, she struggled to her feet and reached for her remaining two katanas…
Only to be felled by a half dozen punches to the head from her opponent, who had recovered more quickly than she managed to.
"My apologies, Lady Musashi." He muttered as she crumpled to the floor. There was noticeable bruising forming from the impacts already. He would make it up to her later, though. Right now, he still needed to catch up to Aphrodite.
He couldn't simply leave his allies here, though, brainwashed they may be (or might have been as of now). What do d-
"Hey, there you are!" A loudly hollered greeting interrupted his musings. "C'mon guys, he's over here!"
Looking around he found Caenis and Caligula, followed closely by the native children, Adele and Makarios, approaching him.
"Woah, what happened here?" Caenis asked, having taken note of Musashi and Holmes' unmoving forms. She turned to Heracles and curled a brow. "You have a disagreement that got outta hand or somethin'?"
"I'm afraid they fell prey to Aphrodite's song."
"Shit...where's those fox girls then? You've not found them yet?"
"Lady Tamamo was lost in the fight with the nascent Beast. It was one of her own alternate selves, someone she called 'Tamamo Vitch'. Lady Cat...she was killed by our allies here while they were still under the Goddess' thrall."
Caenis growled in frustration and kicked at the ground. "Damn it, I was hoping we'd have everyone up and about for this. Guess that was a bit much to ask when you're going up against one of these Beasts, huh?"
"Yes, the situation is far from favourable, but we must persevere regardless." Heracles insisted. "However, I fear we will not be able to guard Lady Musashi and Sir Holmes in the heat of battle."
"Yeah." Caenis groused. "Leavin' 'em out here just doesn't seem right, but we won't be able to protect 'em very well when we're trying to fight that shitty Goddess."
"We can take them back to the hideout." Adele cut in.
"Yeah, we know this city like the back of our hands, we can get them there safely." Makarios assured the duo.
"Are you certain? I would rather not risk more allies if it can be avoided."
"Don't worry. We'll be fine."
"Yeah. Besides, with our enhancements, we're basically immortal anyway. Don't worry about us."
"...very well." The Demigod was still wary, but relented nonetheless. They could scarcely afford to spend too long squabbling with Aphrodite on the move toward their hideout. "Proceed, but do be careful."
"We will." The twins spoke in unison, each moving to hoist one of the prone Servants onto their backs, with Makarios taking Holmes and Adele taking Musashi.
"Great. Just GREAT!" Caenis snarled, thoroughly irritated as she turned to Heracles. "So not only are we down two Servants, but we've also lost our only possible local support as well! Fantastic!"
"I am still here, and am ready to fight." Caligula spoke up, rather shocking his two fellows who, caught up in their own conversation, had quite forgotten he was present.
"You have any ranged attacks, pal?"
"I'm afraid not. My Nine Lives of Rome, inherited from the great founder himself, is not suited for ranged combat."
"And we're fighting a Goddess that flies. See what I'm getting at now?" Caenis insisted.
"I'm afraid so." Caligula admitted. "However, I think there is a better way for me to help. Children!" He called.
Adele and Makarios replied almost instantly. "Yes?"
"Allow me to take our unconscious friends to safety. You are better suited to support the others against the Love Goddess than I am, after all."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes, I will be fine." Caligula assured them, offering as friendly a smile as he could. "Now go on, all of you, battle awaits!"
THERE it is.
She could sense the familiar energy. The familiar…vaguely Divine-like energy from their enemies' superweapon. She had heard about it from the surviving citizens of Olympus. She had even caught the briefest of glimpses of it herself.
Their enemies had constructed a robot of their own, it seemed. The engineering was...adequate. For humans. It was still nothing compared to the Olympians' perfect forms, of course.
The only reason it was any use at all was because it was using one of their pilfered weapons. Was powered by one of their cores.
The thought of these pathetic mortals perverting what their Gods had built and using it against it against them...what arrogance! What utter, blasphemous NERVE!
It would make crushing them and their little toy all the sweeter. Oh yes….she would certainly enjoy it. They would pay for their impudence, especially after they had killed Demeter.
Weakling she might have been, but she was still one of the loyal Pantheon members, one of those who had stayed by Lord Zeus' side when he had ordered the Age of Gods continued. She would be avenged in time.
She would tend to and nourish Demeter's special gardens with the blood of their enemies. That would be a fitting tribute.
It wouldn't be too long now, just a little ways to g-
Who would DARE attack her like this!? Who would-!?
Her visual receptors finally spotted him.
Zeus' spawn...you STILL persist do you, boy?
She'd been Far too soft on him. Far too trusting of those human heroes or the Olympian armies to deal with him. They obviously weren't up to the task.
Her mechanical body halted its advance, then began to turn back, coming to face the Demigod.
If you want something done PROPERLY around here…
THIS time, she'd make absolutely CERTAIN he was dead. Not until she saw his broken corpse for herself would she rest.
Unbeknownst to her, that was exactly what her enemy was counting on.
Groaning as spikes of pain lanced through her skull, Musashi opened her eyes and tried to sit up.
"The hell happened back there? Feels like somebody took a hammer to my head."
Looking around, she found out quite quickly that she was in one of the more intact Olympian residences. Given that she was last within the most heavily ruined part of the city, hunting for a half-formed Beast, perhaps one of her fellows had found her and dragged her to the outskirts of the devastation?
After all, the house was not completely intact, what with the cracks in the walls and even a few holes in the ceiling.
"Yes, I'm feeling quite the same way, my dear." Turning her head and wincing at another burst of pain in her skull, Musashi found Holmes sitting up nearby, the detective clutching at and rubbing his head to try and ease his own condition. "I remember pursuing Vitch, but after that... my memories are quite fuzzy indeed."
"Yeah. We were going after her, then that Goddess showed u-...oh no." The Saber groaned again, this time in dismay, as a grim realisation hit. "Last I recall, she started singing again."
"Mmmm, I see. We must have been caught in it...that would explain the gaps in my memory and the aches in my body. We must have attacked our fellows and needed to be subdued by force."
"You're quite right, I'm afraid." A new, yet familiar, voice interjected, prompting the Saber and Ruler to turn towards the newcomer.
"I'm glad you're awake, how do you both feel?" He Berserker inquired, offering his hand to Holmes as he approached. Accepting it, Holmes found himself gently pulled to his feet. Caligula then approached Musashi.
"Eh...well my body hurts like crazy and I've got a splitting headache, but other than that, no problems!" The swordswoman smiled as wildly as she could, only to clap her hands back to her temples as another headache struck.
The other Servant offered a sympathetic smile as he pulled her gently to her feet.
"Well, I'm afraid I might not be able to find anything to help you with that." He admitted, regret tingeing his voice. "After all-"
A loud explosion cut the Berserker off as a portion of the ceiling was blown inward. A faint blue/white energy was left behind from the explosion that struck the ceiling, unnoticed by any of the present Heroic Spirits. As the other two Servants scrambled for cover, Musashi threw a demanding glare at Caligula.
"What the hell's going on out there!?"
"Ah, yes...I was afraid of that."
A second later, another portion of the ceiling was blown inwards by an explosion of energy.
"I'm sorry about asking you both to move so soon, but we will need to evacuate the building." The former emperor advised. "It's getting caught in the crossfire."
"Crossfire!? What crossfire!?"
A fresh set of energy blasts saturated the surrounding streets as Adele ran for cover. The teenager cursed as a few projectiles impacted and vaporized the ground perilously close to her, culminating in her diving for cover under a particularly large pile of debris.
Despite knowing that it wouldn't do much good against the enemy they were currently facing, she prepared and deployed a smokescreen spell to try and hide her position.
She just needed some time to rest, to think-
"Sister, is that you!?"
Her brother's voice reached her ears and snapped her from her thoughts, prompting Adele to scan the area as best as she was able. The problem was, between the dust and smoke from both the old and new swathes of devastation carved into the landscape plus her own smokescreen, it was rather difficult to see much of anything.
"Brother? I'm right here!" Adele called out, hoping he could follow her voice.
"Yes, there you are." A booming, robotic yet feminine voice interrupted, causing the teen to flinch in terror on instinct. "How disgusting to see traitors among the citizens of our fair city."
Aphrodite hovered into view, the machine Goddess' sensors zeroing in on the two teens as she spoke once more, contempt audible in her voice.
"This city, this sacred place...it offers you everything. WE offered you EVERYTHING...and yet you ally with the invaders? Work to destroy the order and peace we provided to you?"
"That's the problem!" Adele, despite her fear and the urge to try to flee, found herself yelling back. "We've just been GIVEN everything by you, so there's nothing left for US to do! We can't invent anything or imagine anything because everything we could want is already here! We...we're BORED of eternity! We're BORED of being at the limit of everything! We've done everything already and yet we can't even die! There's nothing left for us in this world, but you wouldn't let us just die, so what choice do we have!?"
"Pathetic." Aphrodite spat. "To think you could be so selfish...to try and destroy everyone else's paradise simply because YOU are tired of it.
"At first I thought you were misguided, that you children had been led astray by the invaders...but I see now that I was wrong. There is no saving you."
The robotic deity unfurled her wings once more, the orbs that lined them glowing brightly as she prepared another barrage.
"I may not have the opportunity to kill any of the other worlds' rulers, but I will at least have the satisfaction of slaughtering what remains of the resistance against our rule...beginning with the blasphemers I see before me."
The great mechanical wings moved forward into a firing position, weapons fully charged and ready...only to be simultaneously bathed in flames and saturated with arrow strikes as two voices yelled in unison.
"Shooting the Hundred Heads: NINE LIVES!"
"Fly My Great Golden Wings: LAPITHAI CAENEUS!"
Her gaze following the mana and flame contrails, Adele eventually set eyes on the source, the two Servants who had accompanied them to first engage Aphrodite.
"Come, we must not relent!" Heracles called out, his sheer determination invigorating Adele and Makarios to overcome their nerves and join the fight properly.
Before, they'd mostly been pinned down by Aphrodite and relegated to a support role. But now, with the Goddess seemingly incapacitated, or at least unable to fight back, they had the opportunity to prove themselves for real.
"AAAAHHHH!" Aphrodite screamed out, her vision and hearing being flooded with damage reports from her internal diagnostic systems. Her hull was breached in at least five places, her right wing weapon mounts were offline and her left wing's mounts were operating at a mere half capacity, thanks to the power disruption the internal damage was causing. Her primary beam cannon, the weapon that functioned as her Noble Phantasm, was offline as well.
What...what power is this? How could these mere spirits possibly harm a God so easily?!
Though her repair systems and Klironomia were already working to restore her more heavily damaged wing, her enemies would not relent. Her sensors reported more incoming fire. The traitor humans had joined the Servants in barraging her form with more attacks.
Soon enough, three more Heroic Spirits emerged from one of the nearby buildings and moved to join the existing group. Though Aphrodite could see that two of them had little in the way of ranged weapons, the third Servant quickly added his own ordinance to the barrage...in the form of what looked to be weaponized rays of light.
Desperately, she activated her gravity drive and forced her body upwards, climbing as high as she could to try and distance herself from her enemies' assault. As she did so, she powered up her leftmost weapons array and barraged the area with weak energy pulses. Though they would not do all that much damage, they at least were able to force the Servants to scatter for cover, causing the barrage to abate and give Aphrodite a few precious moments of reprieve.
All she needed to do was get away, to buy enough time for her weapons systems to re-activate fully, then she would return and crush these impudent fools!
As a matter of fact...why wait at all? Why not set her enemies against each other to soften up her targets?
After all, her direct fire weapons might be failing her...but her external speakers were still online.
Diverting all available reserves to said speakers to boost projection to the maximum and summoning her Authority, Aphrodite began to sing once more.
"Oh dear...Kintoki dear, please hurry, we're picking up a familiar energy reading from just a ways away!" Came of the voice of Raikou, or at least the AI copy of her, built into Huge Golden Bear Kai along with copies of most of the original Servant team summoned into Olympus.
"Indeed, and if our readings are correct, then it seems Aphrodite is unleashing her brainwashing ability once again! You must hurry, Mister Kintoki!" Nikola Tesla's synthesized voice spoke up.
"I'm going as quick as I can!" The Berserker shot back, frantically flicking switches and mashing buttons to start the final powerup sequence.
"This would be going MUCH faster if we'd been allowed to use AC here, but that mangy fur ball insisted that DC would be the superior option. And now look where we ar-"
"Uuu! UUU!" AI Fran spoke up, quelling Tesla's complaints. "Stop...complaining! Others...need...help!"
"Right you are! Alright everyone! Let's help Mister Kintoki get this show on the road once more, shall we?"
"Right/Yep!/Anything for my Kintoki!/Uuu!/Let's do this!" All of the AIs chorused.
"Right, we should be just about-" a large hum reverberated throughout the mecha as the primary reactor flared to life and all the cockpit's lights flared to life. "ALRIGHT! Now we just need to get that fancy spear powered up again, and we'll be GOLDEN!"
The enthralling song began its insidious work almost as soon as it reached the group's ears.
"D-damn it!" Caenis snarled out, jaw clenching so hard that her teeth were tearing into the flesh of her cheeks. "My head...it's killing me!" Dropping to her knees, the Lancer Divine Spirit pressed her fingers into her ears, desperate to block out the siren song before it burrowed any deeper into her mind.
"Gaaahh...I feel so...so...ANGRY!" A Makarios snarled, his visage warping as artificial hatred and genuine fear duelled openly on his features.
"Someone...h-help me! Make it STOP!" Adele screamed as she collapsed to the floor, writhing pathetically as sensations of pain and feelings of rage drilled into her skull.
Her fellow insurgents were similarly helpless. While Holmes and Musashi were able to resist the worst of the rage flooding their minds, the sheer pressure exerted on them by Aphrodite's dominating mental presence prevented them from fighting back very effectively.
And for all their will and mental strength...they were still relatively ordinary humans (or the Heroic Spirit copies of those humans) attempting to fight off the mental influence of a Goddess. Slowly but surely, they too were giving in...
"Everyone...you must fight! Resist her!" Of the group, Heracles was the only one still capable of offensive action, the Demigod still firing at the retreating Goddess with his Divine Construct bow.
However, it was a futile effort given the distance between them. Though her power could not overtake him, Aphrodite's manipulations still affected Heracles' focus just enough that his aim was sloppy. Many of his shots went wide, while those few that did hit tended to miss the most critically damaged sections of Aphrodite's hull.
Consequently the Goddess, relatively unmolested by her attackers, was free to focus as much power as she was able on her self-repair systems. The damage the traitors had inflicted was substantial...but it would not remain that way for long if she had her way.
The spike of panic that ran through Heracles, provoked by the sight of the machine deity's hull steadily beginning to reconstruct, the outer hull and inner circuitry both seeming to grow over and fill in the old wounds just as flesh would, roused the Demigod to action.
No! We've given so much to get this far! We cannot falter now!
Through sheer force of will, the Berserker forced the creeping anger and hostility, forced upon him by the Goddess' power of the mind, to the back of his head. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he began to draw back his bow, preparing to recite his Noble Phantasm incantation once more…
Until he was jumped from behind.
His attacker attempted to drive the fingers of their left hand into his eyes while their right hand attempted to throttle him. Fortunately, they were far too weak to actually affect him, so he reached up and threw the straddler off of him with one hand.
As soon as that was finished, however, a magic blast slammed into his side.
It was weak enough that it was a minor annoyance at best, but it also confirmed his fears.
Looking around, he took in the forms of almost all of his allies, including the two native children. All of them had expressions of blind fury on their faces, with Caenis in particular frothing at the mouth with rage, eyes shrunk on pinpricks and radiating hostility.
Despite his power and skill...Heracles could tell just from a brief assessment that he was in for a very tough fight, perhaps even a losing fight. After all, Musashi and Holmes had been difficult enough challenges on their own, especially when they had activated their Noble Phantasms or Skills. Granted, he HAD been fighting to incapacitate, not kill…
And even if, IF, he defeated them all...Aphrodite was regenerating above their heads at the very moment. She would rejoin the fight soon enough. At best, the Demigod would be entirely without support against her, at least until his fellow Berserker Kintoki arrived with the team's anti-God mecha, assuming he survived that long of course.
At worst, Aphrodite would re-join in time to support her brainwashed thralls in battle. And there was little chance he would be able to fight them all off if that scenario came to pass. He would have to either flee, or be killed.
Despite this, he planted his feet and gripped his axe, readying himself to fight.
However, his focus on his brainwashed allies blinded him to the knowledge that he was not, in fact, alone. As it turned out, there was ONE other Servant who had managed to fight off the effects of Aphrodite's mental assault.
And such was the Goddess' hate of Heracles for defying her Divine Authority not once, but twice, that her manufactured hatred directed the enthralled Servants' focus almost exclusively to the Greek Hero, at the expense of the aforementioned other Servant.
Staggering to his feet, while shaking his head to try and chase away the last remnants of Aphrodite's mental pressure, Caligula took in the confrontation before him.
His old self would have thought nothing of charging headlong into the fray, no matter the odds. However, now that his sanity had been returned to him, the emperor hesitated.
He wanted to help, he did...but just from the odds alone, the man was at a loss. His Roman Nine Lives combat style would help him somewhat against multiple foes, what with the blasts that accompanied his more ferocious punches, but when all of those foes were Servants themselves…
He might be able to catch them off guard, even deal some damage at the start, but he would quickly be overwhelmed as soon as his opponents recovered and began attacking him as well.
But if he left his fellow Berserker to fight by himself, he would not last long at all.
Caligula clenched his fists as, despite the dangerous situation he was in, his frustration started to boil over.
In the beginning, he'd been able to do his part and contribute to the fight. However, since he'd regained his sanity...he'd felt outclassed. After all, his power primarily came from his madness fuelling his strength, which came with the class of Berserker. Without that madness to provide him power, the emperor found himself quite badly weakened.
The soldiers and automata of Olympus, whom he'd once been able to defeat quite handily despite their technological might, were now capable of keeping up with him in his sane state. To make matters even worse, fellow Servant Heracles had been rendered sane as well...and quickly proved himself to be FAR more deadly with his intelligent and rational mind restored than he'd ever been as the near-mindless force of destruction and savagery Caligula was more familiar with.
He'd cut a swath through the Olympian armies, led a daring raid on their Maintenance Temple to turn the Gods' own technology against them; killed two of the enemy Crypter's Servants; fought off the influence of the Goddess of Love twice over; assisted in the destruction of the Goddess of Fertility and, most recently, fought a nascent Beast and acquitted himself admirably while doing so.
All of those accomplishments under his ally's belt...and here he was, struggling to keep up.
All he had were the meagre combat skills he'd developed in life and his Noble Phantasm, a non-damaging Noble Phantasm at that.
All I can do with it is force my madness on others...and now I have lost even that. What use would my Noble Phantasm be without my madness? He groused internally. If anything, it would only share my newfound sanity-
Ah, hold on!
Could...could that be the answer?
After all, his allies had already been driven to madness by Aphrodite's song… it wasn't as if his Noble Phantasm could make them any worse, even if it did backfire.
What did he really have to lose in trying it?
Looking up, snapped out of his thoughts, Caligula saw Heracles clashing with Musashi and Caenis, with Holmes and the native children all moving in to attack themselves.
There was no time, he needed to act now. But his Noble Phantasm only worked at night, was it dark enough yet?
Looking up just to check, he was surprised to see that it was in fact getting dimmer, the sun being about two-thirds of the way below the horizon already.
In keeping his focus so completely on his assigned tasks, he'd utterly failed to notice the light fading around him.
Well, the conditions might not be ideal...but it was still worth a try.
Gritting his teeth and balling a raised hand into a fist in front of his face, Caligula began the chant.
Unfortunately, the sound of his voice alerted the enthralled Adele and Makarios. Turning away from the other brainwashed Servants' fight against Heracles, the twins began advancing towards Caligula.
"Yes, can I see the Goddess!"
High in the sky of Olympus, dark clouds began to part and fade, revealing a bright and shining moon.
Adele and Makarios raised their hands, preparing their own spells to blast the Berserker.
Red eyes flaring, Caligula threw his head back and stretched out his arms wide.
"Devour My Soul, Moonlight: FLUCTICULUS DIANA!"
The moon flared, bathing the area in a soft light.
The enthralled Servants and twins dropped like stones, gasping in relief, the rage and hatred scourging their minds being driven away by the cool soothing moonlight. Rational thought returned to them once more as Caligula's Noble Phantasm spread his newfound mental health among the group.
"Gaahh…" Musashi shakily got to her feet again, breathing a sigh as the last of Aphrodite's brainwashing was chased away. "I never wanna go through that again."
"Believe me, my dear...I feel the same way." Holmes assured her as the detective picked himself up. Despite the situation, he fumbled in his pockets for his pipe, lit it up and took a quick pull on it to calm his nerves.
"Urrgghh...that bitch Goddess!" Caenis growled, eyes alight with fury as she sprung to her feet, grip tight on her trident. "I'll fucking kill her! Nobody turns ME into a puppet like that!"
"That was horrible…" Adele whimpered, still curled into a ball on the ground.
"At least it's over now...sister." Makarios gasped out, crawling his way over to offer her some support and reassurance.
"I am glad you are all unharmed, more or less." Heracles looked each of his fellow Servants over. "That was quite the creative use of your Noble Phantasm, Emperor Caligula."
"I'm simply pleased I was able to help." The Berserker insisted gently, though sporting a slight red stain on his cheeks nonetheless from the compliment. "I understand just how terrible it can be to be at the mercy of a God's whims...I wouldn't wish that fate on anyone else."
"Well, thank you once more...but I'm afraid that our fight is not yet over." As the Demigod spoke up once more, he pointed upward. Following his finger, the other Servants quickly understood what he meant.
Aphrodite was descending from the sky once more. With her hull almost completely restored and all her weapons arrays at full power, the Goddess of Love was fully prepared to crush the invaders personally.
"To defy a God with such weak bodies as those...ufufufu. Do you understand what it means to defy me, the Goddess of Beauty and Love?"
"We have resisted your tyranny before, and we will do so again!" Heracles snarled, drawing his bow and nocking an arrow in defiance.
"Well then...drown in my Authority of Beauty!"
The circles to the sides of her wings moved the forefront, spinning rapidly and emitting a blue glow.
"Rrgh!" The Demigod grunted in annoyance as he felt the hostile magic seep into his body. Some weakening curses, a Noble Phantasm dampener...even another charm spell! Through strength of will, he resisted the charm, but the other spells affected him regardless.
"Behold, the dominion of love!" The Goddess cried as she unleashed another barrage of energy rockets to lacerate the street upon which they stood, forcing the Servants to dive for cover or defend themselves.
"Heh, that all you got!?" Caenis taunted, striding forward with shield raised. "That bitch Demeter put up a better fight than you!"
"My dear, it would be best not to provoke her like that!" Holmes scolded her, but his warning was a little too late.
"You DARE insult a God like this?!" Aphrodite snarled, letting loose a hail of lasers to suppress the Servants once more, her renewed confidence quickly overtaken by a flash of rage at the impudence of her enemies. "Very well, if that was not enough...then bear witness to my REAL power!"
The blue bulbs on her body began to light up, along with the purple and gold panels that hung below her primary body.
"Code Pandemos: Input confirmed. Enemy intelligent Organisms: Identified."
Her entire hull began to glow brightly as she channeled ever increasing amounts of energy, preparing to fire her primary weapon.
"Uh oh." Musashi summed up the group's reaction.
"Everyone, scatter! She won't be able to target all of us at once that way!" Holmes ordered, rousing them to action.
"Brother, come on!" Adele cried, dragging Makarios by the hand as the duo scrambled the escape.
"Spiritron Information Battle: Engage."
The gold/purple panels on her underside began to receive the gathered energy, forming a bright white/blue sphere between them. Gradually, as the charge built up further and further, it grew in size and was surrounded by furiously swirling strands of magical energy.
"I'll tear your heart to pieces!"
The energy sphere and swirling strands reached their apex as they drew in their final charge.
"Thou, Disarray The Star Emotionally: Mindhack Mycenae!"
An overwhelming beam of energy erupted from the machine Goddess' underside, obliterating the landscape. Though most of the Servants were far enough away that they only caught the periphery of the attack, Heracles and Caenis were not quite so lucky.
"GAAAAAAHHHHH!" The Lancer screamed in pain, her shield wholly incapable of taking the majority of the God's Noble Phantasm. Even with her own Divinity, Aphrodite's attack pierced straight through her invulnerability. Her skin was charred and her hair burnt from the energy beam.
Heracles, on the other hand, had it much worse, taking a far larger portion of the beam dead on to protect Adele and Makarios. The children had not quite made it out of the Goddess' line of fire, but the Demigod unhesitatingly threw himself in front of them.
Even as his skin was peeled, torn, burnt and flat-out flayed from his body, he refused to be moved.
Even as his very muscle and sinew was stripped away by Aphrodite's wrath, he stood his ground.
He could barely scream, what with his vocal cords being burnt out as well.
These children were counting on him, he could not fail them...not like he failed his own children.
He couldn't protect them. But he would protect his charges now.
Eventually...finally...the pain subsided as the beam cut out.
The Demigod slumped to his knees, just barely making out his hands and lower arms regenerating with his blurred vision. With how severe his wounds had been...
Yes, he'd lost at least A life healing from that damage, hadn't he? Well, it couldn't be helped. In fact, he was thankful it was he'd only lost a single life (if not more), as opposed to having a quarter or more of his God Hand's stock stripped away.
Biting back a growl of pain, he began pulling himself to his feet, trying to push the searing pain from his exposed-to-the-elements muscles, as his skin was not yet finished regenerating.
Taking a quick look around him, he was rather dismayed to see that his fellow Servants were not quite as lucky as he was.
Holmes' coat was once again charred around the edges, his trousers burnt away and his lower legs rather badly scorched.
Musashi's arms and upper body were similarly blistered from the sheer heat of the Noble Phantasm, with additional bleeding lesions on her skin from the actual energy blast itself.
Caenis had it the worst, with a frighteningly large number of scars and several patches of burnt skin marring her arms, legs and stomach.
Despite on the whole taking less actual damage from the beam, they also did not possess his level of resilience and endurance, nor did they possess any Klironomia enhancements. Thus, they were still incapacitated, though Caenis was at least struggling to push herself up.
Glaring up at the mecha-Goddess, Heracles fumbled for his bow, miraculously still in good condition despite being caught in Aphrodite's Noble Phantasm, and prepared to continue the fight.
"You still live, Godspawn?" Aphrodite asked, hostility and disbelief dripping from every word. "Hmph, no matter what I do, you still refuse to yield...perhaps you DID inherit something from Lord Zeus after all.
"But no matter, your resistance is meaningless, your pathetic attempt at deicide has failed. I will wear you down eventually. Give in, and accept our dominion."
"I'm not going to do that...and that was not my goal here."
"I was merely attempting to distract you, to buy time for our reinforcement to arrive." A small smirk blossomed on the Berserker's face as his gaze shifted, looking from the Goddess herself to just behind her.
"What are you blathering on about now, filthy Godspawn?" It was at that point that Aphrodite finally remembered what it was she had been tracking, the divine energy signature of the invaders' superweapon. Sending out a scanning pulse, she decided it was time to get back on mission. After all, it wasn't as if Heracles posed a fatal threat to her, even with his Noble Phantasm. He could only damage her with it, and she could always repair that damage.
The scan finished, and she glanced at the results.
"And lo and behold...here it comes now."
The invaders' superweapon was...right behind her?
And getting closer?!
Frantically firing up her thrusters, the machine Goddess turned as fast as she could to face the incoming threat…
Only for a giant first to slam right into her hull, sending her reeling backwards.
"Gaaahh! What?!" She tried righting herself, began powering up her weapons arrays once more, only for the mecha to pre-empt her and slash the Goddess with its looted wave-force spear, prompting another cry of pain as it bit into her hull.
"HA HA! Get some of this!" Kintoki cried out from inside the cockpit of Golden Bear Kai, pressing the attack relentlessly. "You shouldn't have messed with us or the boss!"
"Insolence! Blasphemous!" Aphrodite screeched as she fired barrage after barrage of lasers and photon rockets, all sense of her previous refinement and decorum gone as the mounting frustration and fury boiled over completely. "You will die screaming, wretched boy!"
"Comon! Come get some!" With that, the two mecha clashed once more. Thanks to expending large quantities of her energy already in her attempts to exterminate the attacking Servants, Aphrodite was not fighting at full strength, allowing Golden Bear Kai to match her relatively evenly.
Now that she was fully focused, she proved agile enough to slip by Kintoki's wave-force spear, while channeling more energy into reinforcing her hull whenever one of his strikes DID get through.
They seem to be reaching a stalemate. Heracles mused, before a polite cough from nearby drew his attention.
"Ach, Mister Heracles, I might be able to lend a hand here." Holmes called out. The detective had managed to lever himself into a sitting position, but was still having difficulty beyond that. "If you could just help me up, I might be able to weaken our enemy with my Noble Phantasm to give Mister Kintoki an edge."
"Alright then." Moving over, Heracles reached down and wrapped a gentle arm around Holmes' waist, while allowing the Ruler to take his wrist with his other hand. He steadily drew in his arm to pull his ally up, while allowing Holmes to stabilise himself all the while. "Are you steady?"
"Almost...just give a few moments." With shaking arms and legs, Holmes braced himself against the backdraft kicked up by the duelling mecha in front of him. Though he did stumble a couple of times, forcing Heracles to intervene, eventually he managed to find his footing. "Alright, you can get go now, I will need the space anyway I'm afraid."
Stepping forward, Holmes began the incantation.
"It's quite simple, my friend."
His podium manifested in a bright flash of light. Leaning back to sit on it properly, the seat elevated him while the podium began deploying an array of large magnifying glasses.
Tenting his fingers in front of his face, Holmes closed his eyes.
"Elementary, My Dear."
The bright beams of light from the magnifying glasses pierced through the dim twilight, focusing on and illuminating Aphrodite. Soon enough, several points on her hull began to light up as Holmes' Noble Phantasm highlighted her weak points and peeled away the Goddess' defenses.
"Mister Kintoki, I encourage you to aim for the areas I've highlighted!" Holmes yelled up at the mecha, hoping his fellow Servant could hear him.
"YOU GOT IT!" Kintoki's voice boomed out over the mecha's external speakers. "I've got this!"
"Impudent! Pathetic blasphemer!" Aphrodite shrieked once more, firing another barrage that Kintoki was forced to block with his mech's energy shields.
With that done, he directed the mecha to slash Aphrodite a few more times across the hull, while pummelling her wings with its free hand. She attempted to reinforce her hull once more with her Klironomia, but the debilitating properties of Holmes' Noble Phantasm ensured she still took damage.
Heracles once again took aim at the Goddess, drawing back his Divine Construct bow and preparing his own Noble Phantasm incantation.
After all, he'd been interrupted before he could fire it off earlier. With his enemy distracted, there was an opening!
"A singular strike to fell the immortal beast… a strike that exterminates regardless of resurrection…"
The arrow manifested in a blaze of energy, held tightly within the bow. Steadily, it grew in power as Heracles drew the bowstring further back, flaring increasingly bright and reaching the apex of its strength as the bowstring drew completely taut.
"Shooting The Hundred Heads: NINE LIVES!"
The blazing arrow soared through the air, slamming directly into the central portion of Aphrodite's chassis.
"Gaaaaahhhh!" She screamed in pain once more, the hurricane of successive impacts steadily wearing away at her already battered hull.
Seizing the opportunity, Kintoki overcharged the wave-force blade with all the reserve power he had available. The tip turned from blue to bright white from the energy buildup, crackling with what looked to be bolts of lightning that arced over the surrounding area.
Aphrodite saw it coming, but was too weakened from her prior fights to avoid it.
"TAKE THIS, GOOOOLDEN SPAAAARK!" Kintoki roared as he shoved the wave-force spear directly into Aphrodite's central chassis, targeting the weak point Heracles had inadvertently created in her hull with his Noble Phantasm.
Aphrodite let out a blood curdling scream as the spear impacted her hull, sending a lightning-esque energy shockwave through her body. Her outer shell began to warp and twist slightly under the intense heat of the strike.
However, when Kintoki withdrew the spear and wound up another strike, the energy crackling around Aphrodite's form did not dissipate. At first, Kinoki withdrew into a defensive stance, wary of the Goddess launching a counter attack...but after a few moments, her weapon mounts still did not fire.
In fact, it seemed as if… they couldn't fire.
Had they done it? Was she vulnerable?
A loud crackling sound filled the air, prompting the Servants to reach for their ears. It quickly began morphing into a distorted warbling, then broken speech. Finally, after a few more moments of sputtering, garbled speech, Aphrodite's voice was finally made clear as she cried out once more.
"No way...this is impossible..!"
"She's just in denial that she lost." Came Caenis' voice, the Lancer finally limping up to stand beside Heracles. While her body was still injured in place, she was evidently recovered enough to be mobile again, though she was still cradling her left arm awkwardly. Being her shield arm, it had taken the brunt of Aphrodite's Noble Phantasm.
"T-to think that...that a God like me could lose...to these mere humans...u-unthinkable! Th-this isn't happening!"
Tuning out her further pleas, up in the mecha, Kintoki reached for the comms system.
"Hey boss, she's all softened up. If you wanna take her out, now's your chance!"
"Got it, thanks Kintoki." Far away, on the rooftop of the Godbreaker Alliance's secret hideout, Ritsuka turned away from the machine Goddess towards Mash, raising his right hand as he did so.
"Mash, by the power of this Command Spell, I order you...fire the Black Barrel!"
"Barrel replica, emergency connection finished!"
"All green! Black Barrel has taken form. Dead counter round set into the gun barrel!"
A low, whining hum began to build in the background, emanating from the superweapon Mash was currently steadying in her two-handed grip.
"Observing fate of machine Goddess Aphrodite. Dead counter round, from paradox to truth."
"Barrel replica, instant alignment complete. Ortinax alignment rate is at 30%...50%...70...80…"
"Command spell charge confirmed. Spiritron chamber critical."
Much like before, the coiling and flowing dark energy trail struck Aphrodite dead on.
She had a mere moment to realise exactly how doomed she was, before the dark energy explosion engulfed her entirely.
Aaahh...I see now.
Even as her mind was flooded with alarms about the critical damage to all her auxiliary and primary systems, warning that her primary power core was beyond recovery and total system shutdown was minutes away, Aphrodite felt...free.
Her lust for blood. Her loss of empathy and love. It was all his doing.
Of course it would be...Lord Zeus always was intolerant of dissent and objections to his whims.
Well, at least she was free...she would not be his slave any longer.
WARNING: Auxiliary systems inactive, reserve power at 10%.
She had many regrets for the acts Zeus had forced her to partake in, from the killing of her fellow Olympians to the massacre of the humans who sided with Hades and his faction, but perhaps her greatest regret, in hindsight, was that she would never been able to say goodbye to her beloved.
WARNING: Repair systems inoperable.
Yes, she had...strayed during their marriage, but it had only ever been for physical satisfaction. If ever she wanted to re-ignite that emotional connection, she would always return to him. She...she just wished that she had been able to do so one last time.
WARNING: Primary systems critically damaged, reserve power at 6%.
That she had been able to spend more time with him, before the Olympiamachia tore them apart.
CRITICAL WARNING: Primary AI core damaged beyond recovery, reserve power at 1...0%.
"Ah, my dear Hephaestus...why did you go? Why did we have to be apart? I...I am sorry...for abandoning you so."
CRITICAL WARNING: Reserve power depleted. AI Core shutting down.
"But...we can be together again now. I'm coming to join you, my love...wherever you are."
Critical system failure.
And thus, the Goddess of Love was no more.