"Tohsaka-san and Lord El-Melloi II are going to meet us at the crossroads up ahead!" Luvia's shouting was barely audible over the roar of the car engine. I gritted my teeth and pressed the pedal to the floor. The engine responded immediately, its growls intensifying as the open-topped car picked up speed. The gravel road under us only made the bouncing worse. At least there was shade. Even with the shadow of the mountains around us, it was almost unbearably hot.
"Shirou, did you hear me?" said Luvia, leaning over from the passenger seat.
"I heard you," I said. "Buckle your seatbelt."
She did so, then hesitantly put a hand on my shoulder. "It's ok to be angry, Shirou, but don't let it cloud your judgment."
"Those bastards dug up my sister for their sick schemes," I hissed.
"Would killing them make you feel more like a hero?" she said. "Would that make Ilya proud of her brother?"
"Luvia's right, Shirou," said Azaka from the backseat. "You'll just end up making mistakes if you go in there pissed off."
I wanted to argue, but they were right and I knew it. This anger had been boiling underneath my skin ever since we left Prague. Now that we were in Egypt, everything was coming to a head. The Scipio family, Ilya, Angra Mainyu, it was all related.
We had let David Scipio go in the Czech Republic, but not before we had gotten every bit of information we could out of him. We needed to understand what we were up against. Now that we did, I almost wished we were going in blind.
Magdalia Scipio and her cohorts were going to recreate Angra Mainyu using miniscule pieces of the Holy Grail gathered from Ilya's bones. We didn't know how they were going to host the curse, only that they were going to use Atlas Academy's homunculus birthing chambers to gather the required amount of mana to jumpstart its creation. Akin to a spirit harvesting souls to survive, they were going to sacrifice hundreds, if not thousands of lives to duplicate the Holy Grail Phenomenon. I was certain that the prana battery we found in Prague was key to this process, but how, I wasn't sure.
We had called Rin right before leaving Europe, and somehow she was able to muster a force of Magi. Lord El-Melloi was helpful, but I didn't understand why he was so eager to join up with us. Regardless, there were seventy-five magi on their way, including six Enforcers.
"Pull over there!" said Luvia as we rounded a bend, pointing at a cluster of dead trees by the side of the road. Ahead of us, the path curved through a thin valley, completely surrounded by the rocky peaks of eastern Egypt. I pulled to the side of the road and climbed out, stretching my legs after the long ride from Cairo.
"They should be here soon," said Luvia. She climbed out of the car and stood next to me, leaning against the hood. I nodded silently and accepted her hand when she reached for me.
"Strange," said Azaka, who was still in the backseat. "The boundary field is still up."
"You can tell?" I asked. "I thought you weren't a magus?
"I can feel it," she said with a shrug. "The field is still up, which means either Atlas is fine and we have nothing to worry about. . ."
"Or?" I said.
"Or Scipio is smart enough to get her forces through the boundary field without alerting anyone, meaning they've already won and we're screwed."
Despite her joking tone, Azaka was right. If they snuck through a boundary field on one of the most secure magic facilities in the world, we were in trouble. There was no telling how far along their plan was. We could only hope that whatever ritual they were preparing hadn't started yet.
Then from down the road, we heard the sound of car engines. Seconds later, a convoy of trucks pulled around the bend, kicking up massive columns of dust behind them. They pulled to a stop in the middle of the path and dozens of men and women began to disembark. Rin dropped out of the first vehicle and walked up to us, closely followed by Lord El-Melloi II, Waver Velvet. The irritable man was followed by a metallic figure in the form of a French maid. It was the first time I had laid eyes on his mystic code, Volumen Hydragyrum.
"It's good to see you, Shirou," said Rin. She hugged me without hesitation and I returned it. Despite our argument over Ayako, I was happy to see her.
"Likewise," I said. "I'm glad you came."
"Emiya, good to see you again," said Waver with a nod. Some of the magi had already moved to the mountainside, and were working on opening the bounded field for us. As we waited, he continued. "I did a bit of last minute research on the Scipio family before we left London."
"What did you find?" asked Luvia.
"They specialize in mystic codes. The artifacts aren't strong enough to be really notable, but they make them in bulk."
"That explains how they were able to block my projections," I said.
"There's more," said Waver. "The current head of the family is Magdalia Scipio, as you reported to Rin. Her husband, Maxwell, is a retired Enforcer that worked with the Holy Church's Knights of Malta. Somehow, he gathered an impressive number of artifacts."
"Sounds like he'll be trouble," I said.
"Magdalia is just as bad," replied Waver with a shrug. "She's been doing quite a bit of research into Origins, and according to some unreliable sources, she has some sort of foresight."
I looked to Luvia and Rin for help. I had never fought anyone with foresight before. If it was just possibilities, then I could probably find some way around it. However, if Magdalia could see a perfect future, we'd have to create a situation that was impossible to survive.
"Shirou, you worry about Maxwell," said Luvia. "I'll think of a way to beat Magdalia."
"It'll probably be a combined effort for both of them," said Waver, his face sour.
The earth rumbled slightly as the illusion before us broke. What had once been a sloping ridge was now a wide crystal doors, breached by what must have been a massive impact. Inside, Atlas's atrium awaited, its floors and walls made of the same grey gemstone. There was no natural light, and illumination seemed to come from the walls itself. The opaque crystal glowed so dimly that it was barely recognizable, but the sheer volume of material created enough light to fill the entire hall.
"Alright, time to go!" shouted Waver. The other magi quickly formed up, and we entered Atlas as a group. The magi moved in small covens, groups of friends or research partners. They weren't soldiers, but they covered each other well enough, checking corners and keeping all directions under watch. The interior of Atlas was silent. Calling it a grave would be adequate. Dozens, if not hundreds of corpses littered the ground.
"This is terrible," said Rin. I nodded as I dropped to a knee. I rolled over one of the bodies, an elderly man that had nearly been cut in two. He was unarmed, defenseless.
"It was a slaughter," said Waver. Then he shouted, "Search for survivors!"
We spread out and checked the bodies for signs of life, with little success. Many had been cut down while trying to flee, and there were few signs of resistance. Here and there, I saw the signs of desperate struggles, with individuals standing up to the tide of killers. They had given their lives without hesitation, buying seconds for the weak to escape.
The attackers had been quick and thorough. The back wall of the atrium had an archway that led deeper into the mountain. Perhaps somewhere back there we'd be able to find stairs. They called Atlas the Giant's Pit. If we were going to find Magdalia, we'd need to go down. The other magi were already searching halls that stretched off to our left and right.
"Waver!" I shouted. "Call out if you find stairs, we'll do the same!"
He gave me a wave of assent from the other side of the room and turned his back on us. The four of us passed through the archway and began searching the mazelike halls. The walls were lined with names, perhaps the leaders of Atlas in the past. Then as we rounded a corner, a gruesome sight presented itself.
On the right side of the passageway, a woman had been pinned to the wall by a pair of swords. Her throat was slashed, but judging by the cuts on her hands, she was still alive when the swords had been stabbed through her and into the wall. She must have tried to pull the swords out by the blades. Blood still gently seeped through her stockings and puddled on the floor below. Her long purple braid was caked with gore, and her face was slack and dead, like a fish pulled from water. I furrowed my brow, disgusted that someone would torture another human like that. I gently removed the blades from the woman's chest and lowered her body to the floor.
"Do you know her?" asked Azaka.
I shook my head as I closed the dead woman's eyes. "I couldn't leave her up there. No one deserves that. "
"It looks like she accounted well for herself," said Luvia. She was right. Six armored corpses were scattered nearby. Their armor was cut cleanly by something incredibly sharp, and it seemed like they had died instantly. Looking closer, there was no crumpling at the splits in the armor. For something to slice so precisely, it had to be something razor sharp, even mono-molecular.
"We need to hurry before more people die like this," I said. I couldn't hear any fighting, but I had to hope that the Atlas personnel had managed to escape or hide. I took a deep breath and stepped forward, only to have the world go white.
I'm in a field of swords. It's familiar, like a dreamscape that has hovered at the edge of recollection. The swords beckon to me, urging me to lift them from the red earth. I lift one and visions flood me. Life. Death. In an instant I see my own life and death, the lives and deaths of those that stood opposite this blade. How many people has this sword killed, in my hands or in the hands of others? I see my corpse on a rain-soaked plain and I drop the sword. I grab the hilt of another and see myself dead on a sandy battlefield, surrounded by the bodies of my enemies. Every sword is the same. No matter the odds, I fought on, alone and misunderstood.
"-rou! Shirou, are you ok!" Luvia was shaking me. I blinked away the fog clouding my vision and stood up, only then realizing that I had somehow fallen.
"What happened?" I asked, rubbing the back of my head. My hand came away bloody.
"You fell and hit your head," said Luvia.
"I'm fine," I said, hugging her tightly. She kissed me quickly, and I pulled away in time to see Rin's concerned look transform into a slack jawed gape.
"What the hell are you to doing? Someone needs to explain this right now!"
Azaka laughed. "So you two are like that! I figured from the beginning." She nudged me on the shoulder. "You should keep that stuff private, Emiya."
I cleared my throat and looked away. That was easy for her to say. Luvia, on the other hand, simply smirked at Rin. "What's this? Wipe that jealous scowl off your face, Tohsaka-san!"
"Jealous!? What the hell do you think you're talking about?" Rin stepped forward, clenching her fists.
"You know exactly what!" said Luvia, her smile growing. I sighed. The conceited side of her was coming to the fore. "Does the sight of Shirou and myself not send you into an envious rage?"
She put her hand over her mouth and laughed loudly, only stopping when I lightly rapped the back of her head. "No need to make a scene, Luvia," I said. "Rin, can we have this argument another time? This isn't the time or the place."
Luvia looked away sheepishly, and while Rin looked about ready to pull up her sleeves and start punching, she calmed down with a heavy sigh. "You're right. We'll talk when this is over."
Ahead, the passage split, with one route leading straight ahead and the other leading to the left. Around the corner was what we were looking for. The hall opened up into a massive chamber, wide and circular. It was like a massive cylinder, descending about a hundred feet down. The walls were lined with bookcases and glass cases displaying various artifacts and valuable alchemical creations. The ceiling was clear, and the bright sun above was almost blinding. As befitting the alchemists of Atlas, the rock was translucent. It was a kind of one-way window that shut out observers but let in natural light.
It probably was beautiful in the past, but now most of the display cases were shattered and the bookcases burning. Corpses were scattered here and there, probably researchers that were trying to save their works before they were slain.
I called back down the hall, telling Waver we had found the stairs. He and a vanguard of the magi arrived shortly. "So this is the library of Atlas," he said, running his fingers down one of the banisters, only pulling away when he realized it was slick with blood. He wiped his hand on his jacket and his face hardened. "The enemy should be concentrated on the lower levels. From what I've read, Atlas homunculi are grown from the earth, much like plants, or perhaps molded like stalagmites, etched from sand and stone. That means the birthing chambers will be deep underground."
"That simplifies things," I said.
"We shouldn't write off these levels though," said Rin. "For all we know, they could have seeded this area with their combat homunculi and soldiers, waiting to ambush us when we press on."
"I agree," said Azaka. "If we move to quickly, we'll be surrounded and killed."
"I'm aware," said Waver. "But we can't afford to clear each floor. By the time we reach the bottom, everything will be over. Emiya, you need to go ahead. Go with Tohsaka and Edelfelt and find Magdalia. Don't waste your time. Find her and stop the ritual before the world is destroyed."
"What about you?" asked Rin.
"We'll move as quickly as we can," said Waver. "You and Miss Edelfelt are some of my best students. With you two, Emiya will be fine."
"Don't think you can take me lightly," said Azaka with a smirk. "I'll be sure to pull my own too."
"Absolutely," I said. I wanted Azaka next to me when we got into the thickest fighting. Her pyrokinesis would be invaluable, as would her fighter's instinct. There was another reason I wanted to be at the front. Waver Velvet knew a bit about my power; at least enough to know that it wasn't normal. He understood that much and didn't ask questions, but the other magi were wild cards. The further ahead I was, the less they would be able to see my powers up close, and come to the only conclusion that existed.
"Get going then," said Waver. "There's no time to lose."
I nodded and set off down the stairs, with the girls right behind me. As we ran, I began backing up weapons in my head. With their content pre-analyzed and formed, I only had to trace them into my palms. I prepared twenty weapons for backup, then traced Kanshou and Bakuya into my hands immediately.
As we sprinted down the stairs, the first homunculi began to drift out of the side passageways. I cut them down in ones and twos. I could feel more power in my limbs than ever before. Even after making my contract, I hadn't felt a rush like this. My swords moved faster than my eyes could track, and Kanshou and Bakuya hit the enemies hard enough to crack and break. I projected the swords again and again, reinforcing their structures in compensation.
A mass of homunculi and Scipio soldiers waited for us at the bottom of the stairs, guarding a pair of large iron doors. The homunculi stood in front. They were the same massed produced soldiers we had seen time and time again, armed with a variety of knives and swords. Behind them, the soldiers stood loosely spread. Altogether, around thirty people stood in our way.
The enemy surged forward, screaming in rage as they charged us and I let muscle memory take over. This was the thickest combat I had ever experienced. The press of bodies was suffocating, the wails of the dying deafening. The fighting was so thick that every slash cut through two or more at once. The smell of blood was almost unbearable, like I was a human processor turning the enemy into meat.
Blades glanced off my swords and my cuirass. The volume of attacks was overwhelming, and no matter how skilled I was, I couldn't escape everything. I spun and slashed, dodging the most dangerous attacks and deflecting the closer ones. With every sidestep and parry, and dealt death in return, punishing my attackers with killing blows. The swords in my hand shattered, and I pulled a second pair from my backups. I grunted as a spear grazed my arm, drawing a spurt of blood. I moved in under a follow-up thrust and shoved one of my swords through the man's face, projecting another to replace it.
"Let's go, let's go!" shouted Azaka with a laugh. She piled into the combat, wreathed in multicolored flame. As I watched her out of the corner of my eye, I felt jealous of her power for the first time. Nobody wanted to get near her, not even the homunculi. She pulled up her hands like a boxer and started punching anything that got in her path. She was incredible. Even after seeing her fight just this morning, I couldn't help but admire it. Azaka had always been good at martial arts, even when I first met her back in Japan. Now, she could probably beat Luvia one on one, and I found myself wondering how she would fare against that long dead priest.
She flashed me a smile and kicked down three men with a single roundhouse. "What are you staring at, Emiya? Don't you have a girlfriend?"
"This is really no time to be making jokes!" I replied. I dodged two thrusts of a short sword and backpedaled, slashing backwards to cut down a homunculi flanking me. The house soldier in front of me first stepped forward, hiding behind his tower shield as he stabbed at me again. I raised my swords and dropped into a defensive posture, deflecting his darting probes of my defense. Then, with a fierce shout, I bashed his shield away with my swords and stabbed both blades through him. I let him fall, and projected two fresh blades from the backups I had prepared.
"Shirou, keep moving forward!" called Luvia. She threw a trio of gems ahead of her and removed the sleeves of her dress with a short tug. Then she snapped her fingers and the jewels detonated, sending limbs and bodies flying in all directions. Then, with her boisterous laugh, she entered the fray with Rin not far behind her. They fought back to back, firing curses into the crowd and lashing out with fists, knees and elbows.
The crowd was thinning. With their backs to the large iron door, they prepared to delay us as long as they could. With the homunculi in front, the House Soldiers locked shields. I dropped the swords in my hands and traced my bow and pulled one of my backup swords to form into an arrow. In less than a second, and drew and fired, sending the crackling magical dart into the midst of the enemy.
The explosion obliterated the Scipio shield wall and blasted the iron door off its hinges. Before the smoke had cleared, I stepped through the ruined doorway. A wounded homunculus grabbed at my leg. Whether it was self-preservation, or its programmed instinct to kill, I didn't know. I simply shook it off and continued.
"These must be research labs," said Luvia. "Closer to the earth's surface, geothermal energy can be harnessed as a heating element for alchemical concoctions."
I nodded, though I wasn't really listening. I was more concerned about finding a path through this lower level. The hallway went straight for about fifty feet, then split to the right and the left. The labs, if that's what they were, branched off from the hallway. Through one of the open doors, I saw a mostly bare room, with large stone tables. The walls were lined with shelves, filled with the flasks and vials that one would expect in some sort of mad scientist lab.
"This way," I said, walking down the hall and ignoring the labs. I followed the trails of Scipio bodies, hoping that they would lead to our objective. They lay side by side with Atlas researchers, painting the halls in their blood. Some of the Atlas Alchemists had put up a fight, and were surrounded by fallen homunculi and even some of the armored soldiers. Despite the evidence of resistance, it shocked me that one of the biggest magic conglomerates had been overwhelmed so easily. I had to hope that the majority of Atlas's inhabitants were hiding somewhere else, and had been ignored by Magdalia's forces.
We rounded a corner. Down the hall, one of the doors on the left was guarded by a mass of Scipio soldiers. One of them spotted us, and shouted out to his friends. In an instant, the formation turned as one and presented a wall of shields that blocked the hallway from wall to wall.
"Looks like that's where we're going," said Azaka. "Now we just have to get there."
"I'm done wasting time," I said. I had fifteen swords still backed up and I projected all of them simultaneously. With a thought, I send them twirling into the shield wall. Moving faster than human eyes could track, the swords tore through the soldiers like I had cut them down with a buzz saw.
"Shirou, that's. . ." murmured Rin.
"We'll talk later," I said. I stepped over the corpses and kicked open the door, blocking out the groans of the wounded. Blood caked my shoes and pants, and my heart pounded in my head. I could only think about moving forward. I would put one foot in front of another until Magdalia was stopped. I didn't want to kill people, but I had to. I had to kill if there was any hope of stopping the end of the world.
The room was nearly empty. Tables had been pushed to the side, clearing a wide open space. On the other side of the room, the grey crystal suddenly gave way to dark earth, and a tunnel that seemed to drop away into the abyss. The contrast was unnerving, like the wall had been sucked away, leaving this darkness in its place. There was no doubt about it; the birthing chambers would be down there. If we were going to stop the creation of Angra Mainyu, we'd have to get down there.
Standing in our way was a group of fifteen. Most of them were the same soldiers I had been fighting all day, but three of them stuck out to me. One was a dark-skinned man with his long hair tied behind his head. His armor was light and cut down, and he carried a pair of jagged daggers in his hands. The second was a bald man who reminded me of Oberlitz, Caren's Executor partner. His massive hands empty, and his eyes burned with hatred as he glared at us.
The third was a woman, tall and olive-skinned with her black hair tied up in a bun. She wore the layered black armor as well, but hers was sleek and smooth without the rivets and folds that the other suits had. In her hands she carried two short swords. At a glance, I recognized them as durable mystic codes, not inherently special but strong enough to resist most types of battle damage. She stared at us with blank eyes, void of iris and pupil. Then, slowly, she smiled.
"Emiya Shirou," she said. "I thought you might have survived. No one checked in after our attack on the airport."
"You're Magdalia?" I said.
The woman did a small curtsey and said, "That's correct. I take it you killed David and Arminius?"
"David betrayed you," said Luvia. "He valued his wife and children over your plot. He is the only reason anyone is here to stop you."
"You won't stop us," laughed Magdalia. "Being here just means that you'll die sooner, rather than later. The rituals are already underway. Soon, Maxwell will be consumed by the power of Angra Mainyu. By sunset, both the Magic Association and the Holy Church will be no more."
"How can you hope to direct that kind of power?" said Rin. "Angra Mainyu can't be reasoned with. It's a force of nature that rivals the killing power of the World."
"It's not impossible to influence it," said Magdalia. She smirked. "We spent much of our time focusing on the manner of individual that could withstand Angra Mainyu's corrupting influence."
"That's how Seif died," said Luvia, her eyes wide with realization. "You poisoned him with its power."
"He was a willing participant at first," Magdalia replied. She smiled and shrugged. "He was with us from the start, but once he realized our goal wasn't ransom, but destruction, he began to have second thoughts. So we used him as our first test. It failed of course, but we learned enough from that to make the second test a success."
"And that would be?" I growled.
"My husband, Maxwell," she said. "I opened his Origin, and he was better able to withstand the influence of Angra Mainyu. Omnicide suits him nicely."
"You've killed him," I said, shaking my head. "And for what?"
"The Clock Tower left my first husband, Dominic, to die at the hands of the Church. All my hopes for a peaceful life died with him. I was left alone with his closest friend, Maxwell. When we married, we swore to avenge Dominic's death."
So that was it. Dominic was the name we had found in Seif's apartment. I shook my head as rage built up inside me. She was going to destroy the world for something so trivial.
"You're insane," I said.
"Maybe, but I've already won. Whether I live or die, the ritual will be finished before you reach the lower levels."
I projected swords into my hands without another word. I couldn't afford to waste my time. I took a deep breath and projected another fifteen swords above my head. I flung them at Magdalia with a thought, and charged before they had even landed.
My swords struck with the force of cannons, demolishing the floors and walls as they struck, turning men into chunks of meat with direct hits. Only a few survived the impacts. Madgalia stood firm, as did her two elites: the dark-skinned man and the tall bald one. They split, with the dark one headed towards Rin and the other towards Luvia. Azaka and I went after Magdalia, who waited with her remaining three guards.
The moved up, prepared to defend their lady, only to be bowled over as Azaka and I attacked. She bowled one over with a clothesline, and I cut down the other two with swift strokes of my swords. They fell screaming, spraying blood across my chest and arms. I spun, throwing my swords at Magdalia. She sidestepped the first as it darted past her face. The second spun low towards her legs, and she simply stepped over it like a child playing jump rope. She landed and pressed forward, thrusting out at me before I could even project replacement blades.
"Emiya, you take care of her!" shouted Azaka. Before I could think to protest, She vanished into the darkness of the tunnel.
I dodged backwards, raising my arms to defend against the stabs. I was rewarded with a deep cut across my forearm. I gasped in pain and traced another pair of swords, deflecting her next two strikes.
"Shirou, you take care of her!" shouted Azaka. Before I could think to protest, she ran down the stairs, disappearing into the darkness below. Just before she vanished, Magdalia spun and threw a knife after her. With a sharp breath, I intercepted it with a thrown sword, only to be forced back as Magdalia attacked. With only one blade to defend myself with, I tried to gain some ground, desperately protecting my face and neck from her stabs until I found the time to trace another sword.
It wasn't possible. Magdalia had me on the defensive. She was slower than me, weaker, but I couldn't regain the initiative. Every time I moved to strike, she attacked faster, cutting off my attempts and forcing me to retreat. I couldn't even overpower her. When I tried to force her back, she just slipped away.
"What's the matter, Shirou?" she laughed, dodging to my right and slashing my thigh. It was just a caress, a taunt to get me agitated. I spun to follow her, keeping my motions short and swift to minimize useless exertion. Magdalia pulled back, smiling at me. My left arm was still bleeding badly from before, and my leg wasn't much better. If I wanted a chance of winning, I had to act fast.
In the midst of my battle, I only had a short moment to assess Rin and Luvia's statuses. Rin was evenly matched against her opponent. They traded cautious blows, gauging each other's strengths and looking for weaknesses. Neither of them were willing to risk themselves in an all-out attack, and as such, the fight was one of caution and positioning.
Luvia was another story, and my short glance sent my heart racing. Luvia was strong enough to be anybody, but this guy was something else. He cleanly blocked all of her strikes and counterattacked without mercy. Every time she tried to get distance, he pursued her and kept punishing her. He drove fist after fist into her face, pounding her in her helplessness.
I had to help her. Immediately I projected a sword and threw it to the right, only for one of Magdalia's blades to intercept it. She rolled forward and scooped up the fallen sword. "I can't let you do that," she said. "I'll play with you long enough for them to be defeated. Then, when you can't fight anymore, I'll kill them both in front of you."
My eyes thinned and I felt a beast growling within me. This was foresight, absolutely. I was beginning to believe it was the vision of a perfect future, and I wasn't sure how far ahead she could see. There was one thing I could do though: a variation of the move that I killed Engstrom with, the technique that Archer used against Rider in the archery dojo. It was so long ago, but I remembered it perfectly.
I dropped the swords in hand and projected Kanshou and Bakuya. I threw them like discs out behind Magdalia and immediately projected replacements. I had to adjust the technique. It needed more variables for her to track. I threw the second pair as well, up and out so that they'd come back above her. The third pair was in my hands only a second after I had thrown the first.
I yelled out as I attacked, stabbing out with Kanshou and Bakuya. I think it registered too late for her, because just an instant after deflecting my thrusts, her eyes widened in terror. Three swords stabbed into her. The fourth, one of the Kanshous, darted past her and smashed into the sword in my hand, shattered both. With a sigh, I let the weapons dissipate and Magdalia's wounds began bleeding freely. I dropped to my knees, avoiding the spreading pool of blood, and lifted up her head.
"You're dying," I said plainly. "Don't let this be your end. Tell me how to stop the ritual."
The light was fading from her blank eyes, but she smiled nonetheless. "Maxwell will never let you," she whispered, blood dripping from her lips and nose. "You're all. . .dead." She laughed harshly then seized up. With a last gasp for air, she died, and I dropped her without ceremony.
I moved to help Luvia. She and the massive bald man were trading fierce blows. Despite her abilities, he was just pounding on her. Holding her by her dress, he drove his fist into her face again and again. Luvia jerked in his grip, futilely raising her hands to defend herself. Before I could even project a blade, he struck her one last time, shouting out a spell in his harsh voice.
The fire bloomed from his hand, expanding and twisting as it consumed the left side of Luvia's body. It was too close, and she was too disoriented to properly avoid it. I felt a pit form in my chest as he cast her aside as a doll. Seconds later, she began screaming in agony.
Immediately, I projected a sword and threw it into him. Silently, he looked down at the metal transfixing his chest and fell backwards. Then I ran to Luvia, who was desperately trying to put out the flames. She rolled back and forth, crying out in pain and begging for help. Her desperate pleading was the most painful sound I had ever heard. I would never forget it.
"It's ok, its ok!" I said, taking off my jacket to help pat her down. The flames were dying, but Luvia wouldn't stop screaming. She was incoherent, pleading for someone to help her. I'm not sure if she even knew I was there. I bit my lip, feeling more helpless now than I ever had.
Behind me, I heard Rin shout out in rage. I glanced over my shoulder at her standing over the body of the dark-skinned man. A second later, she was at Luvia's side. She extinguished the flames with a spell, but by then the damage was done. The left side of Luvia's body was ruined. Her arm was a blackened mess, and she'd never see from her left eye again. Her beautiful dress was in tatters, burnt into her skin in many places. Large chucks of her hair were gone, and too much of her smooth white skin had bubbled and turned slick with blood. Her remaining eye was wide and teary.
I took her uninjured hand. "Luvia, it'll be ok," I said. I kept a brave face and tried to ignore the sickly smell of burnt flesh. Rin immediately got to work healing her, gathering all of her jewels to work.
"Shirou," Luvia said weakly, her throat hoarse from the screaming.
"I'm here," I said. "I'm going to stay with you."
"Don't worry about me," she said. She gripped my hand tightly and smiled as best she could despite the pain. "You have to go."
"I won't leave you," I said.
She shook her head. "You have to save the world. You're my hero, so you have to save everyone."
"I'll come back for you," I said.
"I know." She was crying again, but her smile hadn't faded.
"Rin, take care of her." I pulled on my jacket and stood.
"Don't worry Shirou, I will. Go and finish this. We'll be waiting." Rin's voice was determined. After a short nod, I made for the tunnel and ran down the path as fast as I could.
I was still in shock. With Luvia so dreadfully injured, I began to doubt myself. I couldn't protect her even when she was right in front of me. Would I be able to face Angra Mainyu? I had stopped the Grail years before, but that was different. A simple projection was never enough to dispel All the Evil's in the World.
The air was soon thick with moisture. Glowing light fixtures hung from the walls, illuminating the pit below. Burned bodies lined the passage, Azaka's work, I was sure. Ahead, I could hear the sounds of fighting echoing off the earthen walls. After what must have been five hundred feet, I reached the end. The earth beneath my feet was soft and made a squelching sound underfoot. Ahead was a massive cavern, and as I entered, I marveled at the size of it. The ground sloped downward, descending into darkness. Even with glowing crystals lining the walls, I couldn't see the other end of the chamber.
The homunculi were grown in pods that projected from the earth like vegetables to be harvested. It must have been a sight to see, but now I could only feel unease as I looked down at the birthing fields. The pods were black, seeping mud that slowly flowed to the center of the chamber. The stink of corruption filled the room, and immediately I was filled with a dreadful trepidation.
The mud was gathering around a figure in the center of the room. Before him, I could see Azaka, out of breath and on a knee.
"Azaka!" I shouted. Durandal was in my hands as I ran down to meet her. I skidded to a halt on the soft earth at her side and prepared to fight. She was covered in scrapes and bruises, and her clothes were ragged and matted with dirt. Despite her looks though, she was free of any serious injuries.
"Be careful, Emiya," she wheezed. "He's a monster, and it's only going to get worse."
Our opponent stood in the middle of this carnage. The black mud seeping from the homunculi soaked around his armored ankles, staining the brilliant steel. He looked like a knight out of some legend, covered head to toe in rune-marked armor. He gently flexed his fingers around the sword in his right hand, and the shield in his left was tall and broad, tapered to a point at the bottom. A long red cape fluttered behind him in the hot breeze, a Holy Shroud by the looks of it.
"You're Maxwell?" I said.
The man slowly raised the faceguard on his helmet. Beneath the steel was a pair of bright blue eyes framed with smooth blond hair. The man's fair skin was lined with black, as the corruption of Angra Mainyu seeped deeper into his body.
"I am. . . Maxwell," he said slowly, as though he was unsure of himself. He shook his head erratically. "N-no, not Maxwell. I'm… I'm." He shook his head again like it would clear his head.
"They've poisoned you with All the Evils in the World!" I said. I could see the prana battery glowing brightly on the side of his body, under his shield arm. That was the only thing regulating his power. If I broke it, would it be over? Or would that make everything worse?
"Evil? I-I… I am." His voice was quiet and stilted. The powers of Angra Mainyu were obviously wreaking havoc with his mind.
"Emiya, I can't get through his armor," said Azaka. "It's protecting him against heat. It's a top grade Mystic Code, every piece of it."
"My projections can deal with it," I said. "Just follow my lead."
I lifted Durandal with both hands. There was no way for us to reason with him. He was only going to become more and more unstable. If he was still drawing on the power of Angra Mainyu, all we could hope to do was destroy him before it consumed him utterly.
His gaze shifted to me as I stepped forwards. "Emiya Shirou," he said, his voice surprisingly stable. "You are the last thing that stands between me and my wife's vengeance. I take this curse willing, that I may bathe this world in blood."
The veins of black spread rapidly across Maxwell's face and even sept into the armor, rusting it with its corruption. Suffer, he said, his voice guttural and dark. Suffer and despair as I have.
The faceguard of his helmet fell down to cover his face and he stomped forward, shield raised. Then he shot forwards, slashing at me wildly with his longsword. The sword burst into flames as it came down, burning white hot. I stepped out of range, keeping my distance as I tried to read through his techniques. He was incredibly strong. Even with the distance between us, I could feel the power in his blows, and the sword must have been a Mystic Code with preactivated heat spells. Despite the corruption that was spreading rapidly through his veins, his technique was still intact. He wasn't leaving any openings. Still, he didn't seem to stack up to how Azaka described him. He was skilled, but I wouldn't call him a "monster" like she did.
Then everything changed. Maxwell howled in rage and attacked again, closing the distance between us in half the time it took for his last attack. Even with my reinforced eyes, it was fast enough to make me back up out of panic. He spun his sword in a figure eight and attacked again.
"Emiya, watch out!" Azaka attacked from the other side, using her fire to hold the mud at bay. Fireballs exploded around Maxwell, wreathing him in liquid flame hot enough to melt steel. His armor glowed brightly, but I felt a chill in the air as he walked out of the fire. His armor was neutralizing the heat. If his armor neutralized heat, he was a terrible match for Azaka.
I attacked the flame-wreathed figure, swinging down Durandal with all my strength. Against a man tainted with Angra Mainyu, a Holy Sword would be my best option. He raised his shield to meet my sword. Sparks flew as they collided, and I retreated again. His shield was only slightly chipped by my powerful strike. His armaments were reinforced to the level of my projections. Was that the doing of Angra Mainyu, or were his weapons just incredibly high quality?
Before I could regroup, Maxwell was moving again. I pulled back, projecting blades that glanced off his armor or exploded harmlessly off his shield. Though his mystic codes were now scratched and pitted, they were no less dangerous.
Azaka attacked his rear again, showering him with all the fire she could manifest. As before, it was useless. The fire was neutralized by the inherent properties of his armor. Gritting her teeth in frustration, she moved closer and launched a kick to the back of Maxwell's head. The fiery piston that was her leg drove into his armored skull. He stumbled forwards, but his counter attack was faster than either of us expected.
Maxwell swung upwards as he spun, howling like a mad dog. Azaka was too slow to react as the sword came up to slice her. It cut into her right hip and slashed up across her chest. She cried out as she was flung across the chamber and fell hard to the ground. With her body twisted unnaturally, Azaka clawed at the air as she struggled to live.
I reached her in a single leap and dropped to her side, taking her pale hand in mine. A pool of red expanded around her ruined body, seeping into the dark mud. Azaka's blue eyes were shaking with terror as she fought for breath, her mouth like that of a fish pulled from water. After a long struggle, her lips formed a single word.
"I will, I promise." My words came out choked and quiet.
She stopped trembling, and exhaled. Then, with a soft whimper, Kokutou Azaka died in my arms.