Changing Fate: AVENGER
Shirou flinched as the world around him seemed to freeze, for an instant becoming a lifeless scene as color, sound, scents, feelings, and taste vanished.
And then it passed as if nothing had happened, and Rin dropped her hand, her command seal spent for the order, leaving only one remaining.
"...What was that, Rin?"
Rin tilted her head. "What are you talking about, Emiya?"
So she didn't feel it. Of course. If she had, then she would have mentioned it first, rather than leaving it to Shirou to ask. But why would Rin, who was a real magus, not notice it when he did?
"Hold on, Emiya."
He didn't get the chance to finish his thoughts, as Rin cut in, her voice sharp and reprimanding.
"Hm? What is it, Rin?"
Did he do something wrong? Maybe she was mad that he hadn't used his command seal and that she used hers? But what was he supposed to do, knock her hand down? There had hardly been any time between his suggestion and her acting on it for him to do anything.
"Th-that!" Rin crossed her arms and turned her head away to give him a sidelong glare. "What makes you think you can call me Rin? It's Tohsaka to you, Emiya! Tohsaka!"
Shirou blinked and gave her a blank look.
Tohsaka Rin, the second owner of Fuyuki city and its administrator of all things supernatural, the same person who had just said she would do anything to win the Grail War (barring harming innocents, thankfully), was more concerned about Shirou calling her by her first name than the fact that he had gotten her to use a command seal?
"D-don't give me that look!" Rin flushed and pointed a finger at him. "It's your fault this happened anyway! If you hadn't summoned such a weird Saber, we wouldn't be in this mess!"
He sighed. So this is what Kirito meant by things getting troublesome. Maybe he should have just skipped this meeting altogether. Sure, Rin would have been mad, but he could do without the mental whiplash caused by Rin changing moods so often.
Huh. Since when did he start referring to her as 'Rin'?
The first time had been a slip, and the second as a warning. But the third time and after... No. He wasn't a Harem Protagonist, no matter how much Kirito said otherwise or how many of the criteria he fit. That was wrong.
Tohsaka. That's what he should call her. Tohsaka, not Rin.
"E-mi-ya! Stop spacing out!"
"Ah." Shirou rubbed the back of his head. "Sorry, Rin. It won't happen again."
She flushed and then rapped his head. "Idiot, Shirou."
...He did it again, didn't he? First Ayako and now Rin... really. Kirito had better not be right in that the next girl he would save and have falling for him be Sakura. Shirou didn't know if he could take much more of this madness that had become his life, what with the grail war and having to deal with the feelings of girls like Rin and Ayako.
"Archer! What do you think you were doing? I told you not to go after Kirito!"
Huh. It seemed that Archer had arrived. Thankfully, Rin seemed to be too busy scolding her Servant to confuse Shirou anymore with her unreadable actions, so he got a bit of a reprieve from trying to analyze her actions.
Though, he felt like he was forgetting something important...
The sound of a bell ringing signaled the end of the lunch period, and there were sounds of doors opening and feet shuffling down the hallways.
Oh. That was it.
Shirou tapped Rin on her shoulder and said, "Hey, we should head back to class now. Everything's fine, right?"
She scowled to the empty air. "This isn't over, Archer. Don't think I'll let this slide just because you 'could have' killed Kirito. Hmph." She tossed her hair with a flick of her head and then grabbed Shirou's hand. "Let's go, Shirou."
She took a step towards the stairs that would lead them back up to their classrooms when she froze, suddenly tense.
Shirou sighed and stepped past her. "What is it this time, Rin... oh."
There was a girl with violet hair standing there. She was smiling, but it looked like it was there only because she had forgotten to change expressions, leaving the smile plastic and artificial.
Rin dropped Shirou's hand in an instant and shook her head. "Sakura, this isn't what it looks like. Shi-... Emiya-kun was just... Um..."
Sakura lowered her head, eyes hidden beneath her bangs and said, "I see."
Two simple words, spoken in a way that one would after seeing their closest friend betray them.
Shirou stepped forward, hands held up in front of him. "Sakura, I can explain."
Laughter. It was an unexpected response from the timid girl, and caused Shirou to flinch.
"I see! So that's what Senpai has been doing. First Mitsuduri-senpai and then onee-chan... he's kind to me, but they're the ones he runs off to save first. I had thought it was just Kirito suggesting it, but now... now I see."
There were the sounds of footsteps from students returning from lunch, but it was far off, distorted like Shirou was in a glass container and the sounds were coming from the outside.
"Sakura?" Shirou stepped up the stairs. "Are you-"
"Get away from me!"
A burst of dark energy shot out towards Shirou, and he felt the sensation of time jerking as the world skipped around him. The next thing he knew, Shirou was laying on his back, looking up at the bottom of the stairs to the next floor.
Pain, but also a numbing sensation. Hot and cold, like his body didn't know which to decide on as the proper response. Shirou's senses were frazzled, disjointed from the attack.
"So it's not Shinji who's representing the Matou family this war, is it, Sakura?"
That was Rin's voice. But what she was saying... that couldn't be. Sakura was just an ordinary person. She was a kind, ordinary girl who was stubborn enough to eventually become a daily fixture at his household meals, as well as mornings, from the time he was injured in the Archery club.
She was mistaken. Rin had to be mistaken.
Shirou forced his body up, even though it felt as heavy as lead and his mind was foggy.
Rin was mistaken, so he had to get up and scold her. He had to scold her, and then apologize to Sakura for the misunderstanding.
He got up, using the back wall as support, and then looked up at the kind girl who had become a part of his daily life for the past few years.
She was smiling, but it wasn't the plastic smile from earlier or the warm one she held around his home. Crooked, and mocking. That was the type of smile on her fair face. But that wasn't all.
Runic markings, pulsing with crimson light, crept along the side of her face and neck. They didn't end there though. From the pattern they held, it looked like they continued beneath her clothes, trailing across her entire body.
"Sakura? What are you... No." Shirou shook his head. That couldn't be. But... those markings were different, yet he could tell their nature from the slight pain in his left hand.
"...You're a Master?"
There was a flash of crimson cloth from Shirou's side, and the sound of a speeding projectile.
The crimson Servant had materialized and launched an attack at Sakura with his bow.
Slow. Shirou was too slow to stop him. The arrow would pierce her heart and leave her dying on the stairway. But-
Sym, Ca. Imrtl objet.
-the world froze and it was stopped by an array of violet hexagons crackling with black energy.
"Tch." Archer scoffed. "Of course it wouldn't be that easy." He didn't falter, another blade appearing in his hand and twisting into an arrow even as he spoke those words. "Grant me this miracle-"
Shirou didn't know what it was, but he knew that it would break the protection Sakura had when Archer attacked, and that this following attack would kill her.
"Break the protection, Durandal-!"
"As if I'd let you!"
He didn't know what was going on, his brain still scattered by the distortions and from learning Sakura was a Master. Even so, there was one thing he could trust, something he knew without having to think: protect Sakura.
His limbs reinforced themselves, prana rushing throughout his body to be able to protect her, and he shoved Archer to the side, just as the sword was launched.
Knocked wide by his interference, the sword turned into an arrow missed, and then was batted aside by a wave of shadows. Durandal's traced copy shattered in a flash of light, and the danger to Sakura was eliminated.
The crimson Servant turned and fixed Shirou with a glare. "You idiot! She's not human anymore! If you let her live-"
"Shut up! You don't know what you're talking about!"
Archer tensed, seeming for a moment like he was going to cut Shirou down where he stood.
Distorted laughter echoed down from the top of the staircase and their conflict was forgotten for the moment.
Shirou turned back to Sakura, and couldn't believe what he saw.
Distortion. The air itself was cracked, and the area around Sakura shimmered like a mirage. Even then, Shirou could see her.
Sakura was covered in shadows, a pulsing black and crimson mass cloaking her body. But that wasn't all. Dark, violet polygons flashed in and out around her, looking like what Shirou imagined corrupted computer data appeared to be.
A hand grabbed his arm. "Shirou. We need to leave. Now." Rin was tense, staring at the ominous display around Sakura with fearful eyes. "I don't know what happened but Archer is right. She's not human right now, and what's surrounding her... if we get any closer, we'll die."
"No. You're wrong."
It couldn't be true. It was ridiculous. Things like that didn't just happen. A trick. That's what it had to be. It was impossible for Sakura to just suddenly become a monster like they were implying. It was impossible.
He took a step towards her, ignoring the heaviness filling his limbs and the grating on his insides from approaching.
"Shirou, what are you doing!? Get back here you idiot!"
Rin pulled, but he brushed her hand away and looked at the girl above him.
"Sakura. I don't know what's going on, but-"
A mass of black energy lashed out at him.
-He was going to die. He could tell from looking at it. The first time he was hit by the black mass, it scattered his perceptions and drained his energy, and it had only been a glancing blow. This time he would take the brunt of the attack.
Absorb. Consume. Reformat. Repurpose.
It would erase him.
He wouldn't die. That attack wouldn't end with something as merciful as that.
Assimilation. Erasure. Curse. Evil.
It was a darkness that sundered the soul and tore it apart to add to a darker purpose, to obtain more power.
"Archer! Do something!"
Rin's panicked voice called out, but it would be too late.
The black energy closed the gap, appearing right before Shirou's eyes and-
A weak voice magnified in the distorted silent air.
The shadows parted for an instant, and he saw her face, hidden beneath the darkness.
Fear and pain. She didn't want this. That was clear. Whatever was happening right now was against her will, despite her words and actions. The one before hadn't been her, but rather the influence of another darker presence. Sakura, the kind-hearted girl who had come to his house for the past few years was the victim, trapped beneath that dark presence.
And then she was gone, the shadows covering her once more, until even that faded, leaving the area as empty as it was when Rin and Shirou arrived.
"Get back!" Archer's voice cut through the silence, and a barrage of swords flew through the air.
It broke. It broke. The air broke, the light bent, the sounds shattered.
Cracks rippled through the space before them, and a looming silhouette emerged in the hallway above, with a menacing growl sounding out.
Archer's launched swords struck the moment its full form was revealed, but they broke against the dark creature's skin, not damaging it in the slightest.
You need to run. I can't stop him.
A voice, one he had heard only once before in that dream of fire and swords. "You...?"
Illfang has been summoned, and other monsters are spawning throughout the school.
Danger. He didn't get what she was trying to tell him, but that much was clear.
The monster before them, a towering wolfish beast with a menacing bone axe, rose to its full height and let out a roar.
"Damn it! Rin, take that idiot and run! If you don't, you're going to be erased!"
Archer ran forward with his twin pair of falchions, black and white blades seeking the monster's blood.
Shirou didn't hesitate. Rin was dazed by the sudden turn of events, but he couldn't afford to be. "Rin! Come on!" He grabbed her hand and led her down the stairs.
The school was in danger. How it happened didn't matter, but there was no use dwelling on what occurred. For now, they had to stay clear of the battle and reconvene, finding out a plan of action for what followed, as well as evaluate the situation.
Shirou's mind turned to steel, his determination turning it into a weapon he could use to resolve this conflict.
Ayako let out a sigh. It seemed that she had messed up by telling Minori she was with Shirou last night. Her brash younger brother had charged into the Archery Dojo early this morning and demanded a chance to fight Shirou and punish him for taking Ayako's virtue.
Because of that, the rumor mill was abuzz of speculations on what had happened between her and Shirou.
Ayako sighed and went back to eating her lunch, some bread and tea she had bought since she didn't have time to prepare anything this morning, and ignored her gossiping classmates.
She was in their homeroom. It was lunchtime, and the room was loud as it usually was during the period. Students were milling about, talking amongst each other, and making plans for later in the day, along with other trivial notions. A typical scene, albeit for Kuzuki-sensei, their unassuming Ethics teacher, sitting at the front desk with a packed lunch box.
Ayako thought it was strange for the man to be here, since he usually ate lunch in his office, but maybe he had heard about the rumors and decided to stay and make sure they didn't get out of hand.
A voice broke her out of her thoughts. "Mitsuduri-san."
She looked up from her food to see Issei standing in front of her. "Oh. What do you want, Ryuudou? Are you going to interrogate me like everyone else?"
He shook his head and pulled a chair over to sit near her. "No. I already questioned Emiya, and his story made sense."
She tensed. What did Shirou tell him?
"...But I am concerned, Mitsuduri-san. What made you follow Emiya late last night? Surely you would understand the dangers of a young girl wandering the streets alone at night."
Ayako shook her head, a slight smile on her face. Of course. The traditional young man would be concerned about something silly like that over why Shirou was out late at night.
"Oi, Ryuudou. I'm not that weak. I can take care of myself."
"Ah." He flushed, realizing his slight. "I did not mean to imply you were incapable, Mitsuduri-san, only that-"
Whatever Issei was going to say was cut off as a wave of malice swept across the classroom. It wasn't anything tangible, more of a feeling than a discernible cause. And yet, there was a sudden sensation of staring down a predator and knowing you couldn't do anything to stop your death.
The other students stopped what they were doing and turned towards the source of the malevolence, which seemed to be in the hallway outside their classrooms.
Ayako looked at the door and slightly tilted her head towards Issei. "...Hey, Ryuudou. Did you feel that?"
He nodded, turning to look at the door as well. "I felt it, Mitsuduri-san. But what could have-"
A terrible roar echoed throughout the school, and it was joined by a chorus of smaller ones, lesser in volume but none less terrifying.
The unassuming teacher stood, setting down his lunch, and took a position in front of the door. "Stay silent, students."
"Hey, Kuzuki-sensei," a random student said. "What's-"
A menacing kobold in blackened armor burst down the door, and all questions were forgotten in face of the dangerous beast. Jagged platemail laced with red, a halberd shining a bloody crimson and gleaming with unnatural sharpness. The beast in the dangerous equipment growled and took a step into the room, red orbs shining beneath its helm and looking at the students.
It stopped as it noticed Kuzuki standing there, the teacher having taken a strange combat stance. His left and right arms were held at ninety degrees across his torso, his left below his right, and his legs were shoulder width apart. It was an unorthodox style, but reassuring in its rigid appearance.
"...It seems she was right to be cautious."
With those enigmatic words, the teacher charged forward into combat with the corrupted monster, fists blurring out in paths that couldn't be followed on first glance and hammering dents into the armored creature's body.
His students were too stunned to do anything, dazed at their teacher's merciless barrage.
At least, all of the students except Ayako.
"Ryuudou. Stay here. I'm going to find Shirou."
The boy blinked, snapping out of his daze, and then grabbed Ayako's shoulder. "No, Mitsuduri-san! It's too dangerous!"
She brushed his hand off and ran towards the other door in the classroom.
It was dangerous, and probably reckless of her to do so, but she wasn't going to play the damsel in distress. Shirou would know what to do, so she would find him and tell him what was happening.
I hope it's enough.
A Servant cloaked in darkness standing beneath the burnt trees. That was the enemy that faced Kirito and Lancer.
Kirito couldn't tell if it was a male or female hidden under that shroud of darkness, but what he could tell was that whoever it was held an incredible amount of malice towards him.
"Kirito. KiRIto. KIRITO."
Mad, both insane and angry. The cloaked Servant gave off that impression as it spoke, and stared at Kirito.
Lancer tilted his head. "Oi, you know this person, Saber?"
Kirito shrugged, though he remained on guard against the unknown Servant. "I'm... not sure."
Something about the cloaked Servant was familiar, and the voice was one he knew well, but he couldn't place it. The fact that the Servant's form was indistinct didn't help at all.
It was like... it was like a memory that he should know, a fact that he knew as well as his own self. The person standing in front of him was somebody that played a large role in his life, of that he was sure. Yet, their identity was just out of his grasp.
Frustrating, but he couldn't do anything about it.
Lancer nodded. "Well, guess I don't need to hold back."
Before Kirito could say anything against it, Lancer rushed forward with his crimson spear poised to pierce the Servant's heart.
It was inevitable. The Servant, no matter who it was, would die. Lancer's speed was in that moment faster than when he had fought Kirito a few nights back, and the blue Servant covered the ground in an instant.
Then it happened.
For a moment, the air seemed to freeze, Lancer's movements impossibly slowed, just like-
System Over Assist?
"What the-" Lancer stumbled, the sudden change in his velocity disorienting him, and his attack stopped a hair's width before his lance struck the dark Servant.
A slash knocked the lance to the side, and another swept past it to cut into Lancer. It wasn't anything beyond human ability, just a simple attack from the dark Servant's shadowy blade.
Lancer should have been able to dodge it, but-
The blue Servant leapt back, but his speed was gone, and he could only move back a few paces. It wasn't enough to get out of the other Servant's range, and blood splattered as Lancer barely avoided being split in two from the dark Servant's attack.
Lancer retreated, but the dark Servant advanced, a shadowy sword moving in precise slashes meant to dismantle him in minimal actions.
Thigh, groin, heart, collarbone, neck, temple.
It was a seamless stream of attacks that the blue Servant was only just able to avoid. Even then, he didn't get out unscratched. In just three seconds, Lancer was bleeding all over from deep cuts that, while not fatal, were debilitating.
"Tch!" Lancer tensed again, and then jumped backwards with all his might.
The air seemed to jerk again as Lancer moved, like something was grinding against it, reality pushing against a layer that wasn't meant to be there.
Something gave, and Lancer appeared at Kirito's side, unharmed, though bloody. His armor was scratched and nicked, but the wounds he was dealt were gone, only blood where they would have been showing that they had been there.
The Servant cloaked in darkness returned to where it first appeared, underneath those skeletal branches, and faced Kirito and Lancer once more, like the start of the battle.
"Damn, Assassin's tougher than I remember it being."
That would explain the clinical movements of the unknown Servant. But from what he knew...
"I thought they could only be those people with white skull masks?"
Lancer shook his head. "Same here, Saber. But apparently not. And that guy's not a fair fighter either." The blue Servant looked at his armor and bloodied hands and scowled. "Tch. And to think Assassin forced me to disengage... whoever it is under that dark shroud is dangerous. Not like you and me. Nah, that guy there's a killer through and through, not a hero."
Kirito nodded. If Lancer, the same person who matched Kirito in speed and skill and armed with that cursed lance assured to kill, was saying the enemy was dangerous, then Assassin was undoubtedly so.
But it was odd.
The Servant identified as Assassin stepped forward, slowly closing the distance between them. It seemed to have lost interest in Lancer, turning now completely towards Kirito and carrying the shadowy sword behind it.
That air of Assassin wasn't of a hero, nor was it of a warrior. There was no aura of an exceptional being like Kirito had felt from Berserker, Lancer, or Rider. The impression Kirito got from that dark Servant wasn't even that of a killer, like the members of the Laughing Coffin back in Aincrad. And, while Assassin's skill was great, it wasn't of the highest caliber that should have been a trademark of a Heroic Spirit.
The short conflict with Lancer shouldn't have ended that way. Assassin's attacks were precise and capable of maiming and killing, but they were easily seen through. They were, compared to an ordinary human and the monsters in Aincrad, fast and powerful, but couldn't have been enough to challenge someone like Lancer, or prove as dangerous as they did.
Why was that?
Kirito tilted his head towards Lancer, swords ready for when Assassin entered range, and said, "Hey, what happened back there, Lancer? Someone as fast as you should have easily taken that Servant down."
The blue Servant nodded, readying his weapon as well. "Yeah. I should have. But that cloud of darkness didn't let me." He frowned. "Something about it forced me to fight like a regular human."
The distance between Assassin and the two closed to five meters.
Their situation wasn't good. The chances of being seen increased with every passing minute they kept fighting, and the ones who would take responsibility wouldn't be the Servants, but the Masters who should have prevented the skirmish.
Kirito stepped forward. "Lancer. We need to end this."
The blue Servant grimaced and nodded. "Yeah... my Master's not going to be happy if there are witnesses."
The pair of temporary allies waited for Assassin to make the first move, standing side by side.
Assassin let out a strangled scream and charged, shadowy blade trailing behind it.
Kirito did the same, Elucidator and Excaliber ready to attack, Lancer moving to flank Assassin's back.
The fight resumed.
Archer deflected an attack from the towering kobold. "Tch. Of course. With my luck, I would keep my memories only for them to be worthless."
The counter guardian was sure something like this hadn't occurred when he was still 'Emiya Shirou'. But it wasn't unfamiliar to him. He had spent his entire after life fighting beasts with a nature just like the one before him as a 'Beast of Alaya'.
He took a moment to scan the axe the kobold wielded to gain an insight into his opponent.
"Illfang the Kobold Lord, huh? Tch... so it wasn't just the 'Black Swordsman' that was pulled into the war, was it?"
It was a monster from Sword Art Online, that virtual reality game that came out a decade or so after the end of this grail war. He'd never actually seen it, but knew enough about the 'Death Game' that occurred to recognize it.
"Just what is going on here...?"
He didn't have much time to think on it as Illfang's bone axe began glowing with a Sword Skill.
Archer threw his blades at the kobold, black and white steel biting deep into its flesh. While his traced versions of Gan Jiang's blades didn't have all of the anti-monster properties their originals did, it was enough to wound the fake monster in front of him, unlike the others he had used earlier.
Illfang roared in pain and blindly swung its axe, though the light of the Sword Skill had faded from being interrupted.
"Hmph." With a contemptuous air, Archer traced another pair of his favored black and white blades and cleaved the arm that was moving towards him with a swift slash.
Normally, such a feat would be impossible for him as he didn't possess the strength to counter that of a monster like Illfang. But...
"A fake monster like you is a far cry from the real thing. Be gone!"
Reinforcing both his blades to dangerous levels, turning them into 'broken' versions, Archer charged and struck down the first Boss of that incarnated radius.
Light, dust, and debris flew as the powerful attack took out a portion of the floor along with Illfang, but when it cleared there wasn't a trace of the Kobold Lord.
Archer let his blades fade away and stared at the hole in the floor. "...Rin's not going to be happy about that." He sighed and headed towards where he sensed Rin was when a low growl filled the hallway again.
"...Not dead yet? Tenacious, aren't you."
Archer turned around and prepared to launch another pair of Kanshou and Bakuya at Illfang and then froze when he saw what had happened to it.
Pulsing black and red veins spreading across its body. A nodachi blackened with a curse to a level that it could be compared to a B level Noble Phantasm.
Archer sighed. "I can't escape my duties even now, can I?"
The creature before him was no longer a simple beast, or even a phantasmal creature. It had been just a construct of prana earlier, but now-
"It looks like I can't fool around this time if Angra Mainyu's gone that far."
Illfang roared, a strangled war cry that sounded as terrifying as Berserker's. As it was, the beast could have equaled the mad warrior in strength and agility, but Archer wasn't worried.
"I am the bone of my sword."
Unlike the greatest Greek hero, the monster before him didn't have twelve lives.
"Trigger, off. Continuous fire, sta-."
A distortion, similar to the sensation that occurred when he summoned his reality marble, passed through him. "What-?"
Archer's eyes widened as a flash of crimson light approached. "Tch!"
He quickly traced Kanshou and Bakuya again, though it wasn't without effort. Something was grating against his reality marble, pushing against his ability to project his blades into reality.
The black and white Chinese falchions clashed against the corrupted nodachi that was enhanced by the force of a Sword Skill.
Archer was forced back as his blades screeched against his foe's monstrous strength, but they held, the intrinsic affinity towards monsters preventing the corrupted Illfang from reaching their user.
Illfang roared and leapt back, sword still wreathed with crimson light, and swung its blade to the side to stand in a stance similar to a quick draw.
"...I underestimated it."
Archer lightly scolds himself and straightens. It seemed that whatever was wrong with the grail and had influenced Sakura was affecting the world in ways that could be compared to a reality marble, elevating the monster's strength to a true phantasmal beast, as well as turning the simple attacks from that video game into techniques rivaling Noble Phantasms.
"In that case... Trace, on."
Archer wouldn't be able to affect the outside world any more. His affinity with Kanshou and Bakuya allowed him to project those blades, but he had a feeling that trying to bring out anything else, or producing more than one copy of the pair would only give Illfang the time to attack him.
However, his internal world held no such restrictions.
"His body is made out of swords. His blood is of iron and his heart of glass."
Reinforcement, a mystery to enhance the properties of an object to a level beyond its natural capacity. As a human, Archer was never able to reach a level that could be praiseworthy. But as a Servant, and now under the influence of this pseudo-reality marble that was preventing Gaia's influence...
"...All processes complete."
Archer smirked and firmed his grip on Kanshou and Bakuya. "Let's see how monstrous you are, Illfang. Can you beat this fake hero?"
Illfang roared, charging forward with 'Vorpal Strike', a heavy one-handed sword skill with a range double the length of the blade attacking.
A heavy clash of steel echoed through the hallway, and the battle continued.
Shirou ran down the stairs with Rin close behind.
A chorus of animalistic roars echoed throughout the school, no doubt from more monsters like the one that had appeared earlier.
A calamity. This situation was exactly what he trained to prevent. For the moment, it was constrained to that third floor, but he could hear the cries of fear and terror from above. Time was short. They had to act.
He came to a halt when they reached the second floor and dashed out to the hallway, stopping long enough only to determine which classroom was empty before moving inside of it, pulling Rin with him.
"H-hold on Shirou! What are you doing?"
She was flushed from the sudden retreat, as well as Shirou's abrupt actions, but he disregarded it. The situation was spiraling out of control, and he needed to find out what he could do to stop it.
"Rin. To the best of your knowledge, explain what's happening."
His voice was cold again, flat. Sharp and steely, like a drawn blade.
Rin tilted her head and gave him a strange look. "...Are you alright, Shirou? You've been acting weird ever since Sakura... no, even before that. Did something happen?"
Irrelevant. Didn't she see? "That doesn't matter, Rin. I need to know what's happening. If we don't do something, everyone will-"
No. That wouldn't happen. He wouldn't let them die. Even if that monster was something he couldn't face, he had to stop it. He had to stop it, find Sakura, protect Ayako, protect Rin, protect the school, and then stop the other Servants. He was a hero, he had to be a hero. There was no one else who could do it. He had to save them. He had to save them. He had to-
He snapped out of it. Rin was talking to him.
"Sorry, Rin." He shook his head. "But we need to hurry."
She frowned and gave him a hesitant nod. "...If you say so, Shirou." She held up a finger in what he now knew to be her lecturing pose.
"I'm not sure exactly what happened, but a malignant presence has filled the school, possibly through Sakura. Maybe it was always a part of her and brought out by seeing us together, or maybe it just found her a convenient host with her emotions in turmoil at the moment. I don't know." She shook her head.
So Sakura was a victim. Possibly because of his actions, since he had attacked Shinji the other day. The Matou was an ancient family of Magi, wasn't it? Yes, so if Sakura was kept there, and Shinji was there alone with her, he would have done something in retaliation.
Rin continued. "She's probably not entirely human anymore, not if she had that aura around her. You felt it too, right? That malevolent air surrounding her when you were close? And the shadows that threatened to consume your soul?"
That had been dangerous. It wasn't a simple lethality that was inscribed in the shadows, but a fate far worse should they be allowed to accomplish their purpose.
...So Sakura was now dangerous.
But she was a victim in this.
...And because of that, a monster had appeared that now placed the school in danger, as well as possibly risking the exposure of magecraft.
Archer had been right then. He shouldn't have stopped the red Servant from attacking. But-
She had stopped. It was the presence that was forcing her to do those things. So he just had to get rid of it.
"Anyway," Rin said. "Archer should be able to deal with that monster. We should probably check on the rest of the school to make sure there aren't any other enemies." She sighed. "...It's going to be a pain cleaning this mess up. I hope Kirei's gotten enough sleep lately. I don't think he's going to get any for the next few days..."
Shirou placed the conflicting feelings under a layer of steel. It wasn't the time for that. The school was still in danger.
Rin shook her head and let out a groan. "This can't end well. If there are these many witnesses... stupid Archer. This wouldn't be happening if he didn't go off to fight Kirito!"
What are you doing?
That voice. The young girl who had spoken to him in that dream.
You need to hurry. It should not be much longer before Illfang is beaten, but there are still more roaming around.
That was right. This wasn't the time to be waiting around.
"Rin. Let's go."
Judging the concept of creation...
A simple blade appeared in Shirou's hand. It wasn't exceptional, and of a quality that would shatter the moment it met something like Lancer's spear or Berserker's axesword, but it should be good enough to fight with if he used Sword Skills.
"Eh? Shirou... you're planning on fighting? No." Rin shook her head. "You should get out of here. Someone like you who can't even use basic thaumaturgy wouldn't be of help, even with that sword."
He ignored her and walked out to the hallway.
Rin grabbed his shoulder and turned him around. "Emiya! Are you listening to me? You can't do anything!" Her expression softened a bit when she looked into his eyes. "If you try to fight them, you're just going to-"
There was a heavy crash and a hole opened in the ceiling not far away, debris falling from the floor above, followed by an intimidating roar. A cacophony of screams sounded out at that, the students and staff in the building fearing for their lives, unknowing the nature of the impacts and roars that echoed through the school.
Rin frowned. "Archer's not holding back at all... that can't be good."
If that was the case, then Rin shouldn't be there either. If even Archer was having trouble, she would die as well.
Protect them. He had to save them.
Another person arrived, and he was brought out of his steely mindset for a brief moment.
Ayako ran towards him and gave him a brief hug. "You're safe!"
"Mitsuduri-san?" Rin frowned. "Shirou, is this who you were-"
"There's no time!" Ayako grabbed Shirou's free hand and started pulling him away. "Monsters have appeared! They're in the classroom now! Kuzuki-sensei and Fujimaru-sensei are fighting them off, but-"
"Crap." Rin turned towards Shirou. "You protect her. I'm going to go deal with the monsters upstairs. It doesn't look like they've reached here yet, so if I hurry..."
She ran off towards the other stairway, away from where Archer was fighting Illfang. "Protect her, you hear me Shirou! Don't let anyone die!"
"Shirou? What's going on this time?" Ayako gave him a worried look. "Is this part of that war you were talking about?"
"Honestly?" Shirou shook his head. "I don't know."
There was a ripple throughout the air in the hallway, and then an armored kobold appeared before him, armor blackened and armed with a wicked halberd.
Shirou stepped forward, his sword held loosely to the side like he had seen Kirito act.
"...Stay behind me, Ayako. I'll protect you."
The brown-haired girl scoffed and entered the classroom. Shirou thought it was to hide from the danger, but she came back out with a broom and shifted into a combat stance, holding the broom like a naginata. "I don't need your protection, Shirou. This time, I'll have your back."
Shirou couldn't help the smile that crept on his face. Of course. Someone like Ayako could never stand back and just wait to be saved. It was silly of him to think otherwise.
...But he couldn't let her come to harm, either.
"Fine. But I'm taking the lead."
"Of course! That's what a hero does, right?"
He smiled at that, but then wiped it away. The sentinel approached.
"Get ready, Ayako. Be careful."
"You too, Shirou."
The pair stood side by side, an unorthodox duo acting out the role of warriors, and their first battle began.
It was an impossible outcome.
Lancer and Kirito were standing in the midst of that burnt park, bleeding from wounds all over their body. In front of them, Assassin stood unscathed, having repulsed every attack they sent at it.
"Damn," Lancer said. "Just who the hell is this guy?"
"I don't know, Lancer. I don't know."
It should have been a rout. With both Kirito and Lancer fighting against Assassin, the shadowy Servant should have died in the first five moves. Yet, it was them that were on the verge of defeat.
The cause of that was the air and land surrounding them.
Kirito held up his blades again, face grim, and took a look at his arms.
They were shaking, despite the fact that they shouldn't. As a Servant, the blades he wielded were an insignificant weight. Even if he was exhausted, they shouldn't hamper his attacks in any way.
Yet, at the moment, the steel weapons felt like lead, and his arms struggled to just hold them up.
To his side, it looked like Lancer was struggling as well. The blue Servant's expression was just as grim, and he looked as bad as Kirito did.
Debuffs. That was the best way Kirito could describe it. Somehow, the land and air around them when they entered Assassin's range restricted their movements and abilities. Speed, Strength, Endurance, Agility, Mana, even Luck were reduced to that of an ordinary human's.
Not only that, but whatever was happening prevented the use of Noble Phantasms as well.
Lancer had tried to use Gae Bolg, only to be nearly carved in two by Assassin when the activation failed.
Kirito had tried activating Dual Blades, as well as breaking Assassin's blade, but both attempts failed, with the price being slashes across his body.
It was a stacked fight from the start, but the odds weren't in their favor like Kirito had thought.
While they were limited to the level of a human, Assassin was gradually gaining in speed and strength. What had once been ordinary attacks executed at high levels of human capability were now exceptional blows that were like a continuous stream of Sword Skills. It was only because Lancer was by his side that Kirito hadn't fallen yet.
"...I don't think we can win this, Lancer."
The blue Servant nodded, watching their foe with wary eyes. "Yeah. Damn. Can't even get a fair fight." He sighed. "Well, what can I expect from an Assassin?"
The distance between them was five meters again. That was the maximum range of Assassin, and likely that of its dampening effects as well. All it would take would be to move outside of the range, and they would be back to their full abilities.
Simpler than it actually was, considering Assassin was now as fast as the two of them had been when not restrained.
"...Oi, Saber. That guy's really fixated on you, huh?"
Kirito nodded. That was the strange part of it all. Despite Lancer being a greater threat to Assassin with his spear, there had been many times in their fight that Assassin completely ignored him in favor of Kirito.
Out for blood. That was a proper phrase for Assassin's intent. And the target was Kirito, for some unknown reason.
"Alright." Lancer straightened and fixed Assassin with an intense gaze. "I can probably stall for a few seconds. That should be enough time for you to get out of here."
"Huh? But won't you be in danger, Lancer?" Kirito shook his head. "No, I won't leave you behind."
Lancer grinned. "You're a good guy, Saber... or is it Kirito?" Lancer raised his spear. "But trust me on this. I've fought people like him before, and once they've got their sights on something, that's all they see. Assassin should stop the moment you're gone."
Kirito considered it. Assassin did seem hell-bent on him, but would that be enough to leave Lancer alone when he left?
"Just go already, Kirito. I'm flattered that you think that highly of me, but I'd rather you get out of here and save your Master than both of us die here. That kid'll probably die the moment you're gone, you know."
"...Fine." Kirito sheathed his blades and tensed.
Assassin noticed his action and tensed as well, ready to launch forward at a moment's notice.
"Don't die, Lancer."
"Hah." The blue Servant shook his head. "I'd be more worried about you, Kirito. Now... go!"
Kirito turned and ran. In that moment, Assassin charged, moving at a blinding speed to cut Kirito in two-
"Oi, I'm your opponent Assassin!"
-but Lancer stopped the cloaked Servant's charge short with a precise stab that pierced Assassin in the exact moment that the Servant passed Lancer.
Even then, the cloaked Servant stared at Kirito's retreating back. "...Unforgiveable."
Lancer pulled out his spear and lunged for another stab, this time through the Servant's heart.
It never struck.
After that last word, the cloaked Servant vanished, slinking into the shadows like it was part of them.
"Tch." Lancer straightened and leaned against his spear, already healing from his wounds now that Assassin and the dampening effects were gone. "First that Archer that uses blades and now an Assassin that's strong enough to stop Saber... this war's not as simple as I thought it'd be."
The blue Servant shook his head and faded away, turning into his astral form to return to his Master, leaving the park silent and uninhabited once more.
Shirou ran forward, his projected sword glowing with blue light, and swung, his body rocketing forward to perform a blinding vertical slash.
The armored kobold staggered back from the attack, its armor scratched from the Sword Skill.
A brief delay. Shirou's body tensed for a moment, the aftermath of forcing his body to move at a level greater than its ability.
The kobold noticed it and stepped forward, halberd raised to strike.
Ayako lashed at the kobold with the broom. The attack couldn't have caused much damage, the plastic shaft unable to even dent the metallic armor the kobold wore. But it was enough.
The kobold was stunned for a second, having acknowledged Ayako as a non combat entity due to not wielding a recognized combat weapon. It had placed priority on Shirou and his use of Sword Skills, and wasn't expecting Ayako's attack.
Shirou stepped forward, sword glowing with azure light once more, and slashed upwards, carving the kobold in two with another vertical, executed from below.
He straightened and kept a wary eye on their surroundings as he waited for his body to relax.
The halls were shadowed, darkened by an unseen presence, but didn't seem to hold any more enemies. That was good.
"...Did we do it, Shirou?"
Shirou nodded. "It's gone. Good job, Ayako." He frowned. "But I'd prefer it if you didn't charge in like that next time."
She scoffed. "And what, leave you to get cut in half? I think I'll pass, Shirou."
"Even so, I don't want you to risk yourself..."
Ayako opened her mouth, set on lecturing Shirou on what a girl could and couldn't do-
"If you were to get hurt, I don't know what I'd do."
-and she closed it at those words. She blushed and lowered her head a bit. "O-oh. Well, I'll be careful."
Shirou smiled. "That's all I want."
The sounds of clashing steel and thunderous explosions rang out from above. It seemed that Archer's battle was reaching its climax.
"Come on, we should probably-"
"Run!" Archer's voice, fierce and with a hint of concern rang out from above. "It's changed targets!"
Ayako tilted her head. "What's-"
A roar, one that shook the heart and was enough to stop an unprepared person cold, echoed along the hallway. The source: a towering kobold that looked to be rotting and was riddled with wounds all over, bleeding black ichor.
Ayako was standing right in front of it, frozen with fear.
Shirou moved, sword glowing with yet another sword skill.
Save her. That was the only thought on his mind.
Stop! You cannot face it!
The voice again. It didn't matter. Shirou had to protect Ayako. He wouldn't allow those in front of him to be harmed. He couldn't.
Illfang's nodachi rushed towards Ayako.
-He recognized that move. He had seen it before in a dream. The beginning to an inescapable attack sequence in the air, ending with the target's death. This blow would send Ayako flying if she survived it. But that blackened nodachi... it was deadlier than what the original held. The moment it touched her-
No. He couldn't allow it.
But what could stop it? No. He couldn't doubt himself. Kirito wasn't here to help, so he had to be the protector. Archer was above them, but wouldn't arrive in time.
Protect her... he had to do it. If he didn't, then she would die.
She would die.
couldn't be saved.
-was someone he couldn't lose.
Time slowed to a crawl, compressed by Shirou's steely resolve.
He wouldn't make it. The length of time between the preparation of the skill and its execution was too short for him to do anything about it. He wouldn't make it.
He had to.
He moved, legs reinforced to their utmost capacity, becoming like steel pistons to rocket him across the hall.
He moved, arms reinforced to their utmost capacity, becoming like steel cables with the sole purpose of launching his blade into an unavoidable attack.
He moved, body reinforced to a level that he could have been called a man of steel.
He moved, and yet he didn't make it.
Blood splattered and a body fell to the floor.
Illfang was leering, its black nodachi bloodied with *****'s blood.
***** looked up at him with dazed eyes. "Ah." A soft voice. "I messed up."
No. No! NO!
"You idiot! Get back!"
Someone's voice shouted out a warning, but he didn't hear it.
Stop! You will not win!
Another voice, stating the inevitable.
He ignored it, sword cloaked with crimson, just like the fluid staining the floor beneath *****'s body.
'Vorpal Strike' sent Illfang careening backwards, away from *****'s body. Shirou raced after it, and attacked with 'Savage fulcrum', cutting three slashes across the Kobold Lord's torso and sending black ichor splashing into the air.
Illfang got up from the attack, its leer still on its decaying face. It was probably dead thrice over, but corrupted as it was, the monster didn't know when to quit.
It charged and slashed, the nodachi tracing a long line across Shirou's torso.
-The sound of screeching metal. It bled where he was wounded, but the nodachi couldn't cut deeper than his skin.
"I am the bone of my sword."
Words tumbled from his lips, an oath to connect the one known as Emiya Shirou.
"Steel is my body, and fire is my blood."
"Mitsuduri-san! Hang on!"
A voice from behind him, that of an ally. That was good. Then he could focus his entire being on ending the one before him.
...I see. So you are determined then?
The voice of the young girl.
Of course. The monster before him had to be slain.
...You will be changed. Moreso then you are now. If you pursue this route... you will no longer be human.
A warning. Not of pain or death, but irrevocable change.
...That was fine. If it would allow him the strength to prevent something like *****'s death, he would take it.
Very well. Then I shall release it. Your true nature is-
"Rin! Don't let him continue!"
"Archer, what are you-?"
Shirou stood, staring straight into the face of Illfang without a hint of fear or hesitation.
"I have always been dreaming of-"
-Mugen no Kensei.
"-The Fantasy of the Sword Saint."
Pain flared throughout his body as his nerves launched into overdrive, coursing with prana from being turned into makeshift circuits. His actual magical circuits seared as an unlimited number of sword techniques compiled from both the blades he carried within and the Sword Arts from Aincrad were loaded.
The one known as Emiya Shirou stepped forward, his blade at once all the blades in the world and carrying all of the raw materials and sorceries used to manufacture the blades carried in his soul.
Illfang roared and stepped forward, deciding to take advantage of its opponent's inaction...
It was torn asunder as an infinite number of slashes from an unlimited number of blades was inscribed upon the space before Emiya Shirou, carving a hole in reality itself and replacing it with blades.
And the battle was over.
Shirou turned around, body still thrumming with magical energy, and looked towards the one he failed to save, failed to protect.
Rin was standing there, jewels pressed against *****'s body. Magical energy was coursing through her hands and into her, but the wound wasn't closing.
Archer was standing by his Master's side, but he wasn't looking at her. The crimson Servant stared at Shirou with what could only be described as disbelief, though it wasn't exactly that.
Shirou closed his eyes.
You cannot save everyone...
That's right. You cannot save everyone. Not now... not ever.
Shirou opened his eyes, now a cold steel gray.
...But I'll make sure no one else dies.
The Corruption seized the Aberration, utilizing the System to begin its birth.
The Assassin revealed itself, proving its lethal prowess against the Servants of Sword and Lance.
The bloodied ideal realized the truth of the war and reaffirmed his duty, forsaking his desire.
And finally... the naive hero was brought back to reality and forged into the blade he was meant to be.
Fate had changed, and its flow diverted.
From this point onwards, the hero would be walking a different path-
Withstanding pain for turning against the past.
-one with an end that even Fate could not predict.