14 – A Different Path: Dividing IV
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Lancer straightened and leaned against his spear. The shadows shrouding his surroundings faded away to reveal an ordinary office space. Cubicles dotted the area here and there and papers were strewn across the tiled floor but not a single person could be seen.

"Tch. No survivors then." Lancer sighed and took another glance at the center of the room. The monster was still fading away, the demonic creature turning into particles of blue light. "Though if that thing appeared out of the blue like it did for me, I'm not surprised."

He shook his head and started walking towards the building's exit. "At least it was a decent fight. Still..." Lancer held up the peach-colored crystal that had appeared in front of him after killing the monster. "What the heck is this?"

Lancer could astralize it like Gae Bolg, yet he couldn't figure out what it did. Putting prana into it didn't do anything but make it a darker color, and it didn't break when he tossed it against a wall like an ordinary prana-infused gemstone would do. Despite that, Lancer could tell it was magical in nature. The gods knew how many times Scathach had drilled that ability into his head after he almost blew his head off grabbing one of her talismans.

He shrugged and let the crystal turn back into its astral form before setting off to continue his patrol.

Rin sat in her room before an ornate chest. After skimming through her the tomes from the Tohsaka library and scrounging around the basement, she determined the contents of the container in front of her to be her best course to resolving the chaotic situation unfolding in town. The reasons for that were the following.

For one, Fuyuki would be wiped out the moment Enforcers and the Executors arrived if the situation wasn't resolved ASAP. And as the Second Owner of this city, Rin would take the blame.

For another, she learned that the Clock Tower had a mechanism set up to determine whenever a gate to Akasha had been opened. And since Shirou had done just that to obtain his stupidly broken Magic that let him edit Akasha itself, well... she was going to need the fire power to hold them back, which led to her pulling out what she was currently examining.

It was an ancient heirloom of the Tohsaka family, left by Zelretch back when he appeared to help establish the Grail War. Inside were the blueprints for his infamous Jewel Sword as well as something only mentioned as 'the accursed Kaleidostick' in the books that she found about it.

In short, what was inside were the steps necessary to recreate and learn the Second Magic.

Considering the situation at hand, that was something she sorely needed.

She reached towards the chest, heart pounding at the thought of gaining the resources necessary to show up Shirou... er, to resolve the situation. It wasn't like she was jealous that the first-generation magus had done the impossible or anything like that! She just felt that this was necessary, that was all!

Rin shook her head to clear her thoughts. She could think about that later. Right now, she just had to open the chest.

She unclasped the latches and was about to open the lid when she felt her last Command Seal fade away.

She froze and looked at the back of her left hand.

It was bare.

"Haha... I must be seeing things." She shook her head. "Stupid Shirou, making me all worried like this with his stupid Sixth Magic." She took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "I'm just tired. After all, it's not like Archer could have gotten himself killed in the past hour, right? Right. So when I open my eyes, I'm going to see my last Command Seal safe and sound. Then I'm going to yell at Archer for worrying me."

She nodded. "Right. So on three. One, two, three!"

They were still gone.

"...Maybe I just accidently used it."

It was a long shot, but she was engrossed with her books earlier. Enough to unconsciously mutter a command to Archer and use up the last seal... probably not.

And then she saw the note hanging above the chest on the wall.

"Rin. I'm happy that I was your Servant, but you'll be safer this way. That idiot should protect you about as well as I could with his new Magic. Stay close to him and you'll survive the war. Farewell... what the hell is this?!" She punched the chest. "Gragh! Archer, you idiot! This better not be a suicide note you bastard!"

She didn't know what to think. Sure, Archer had betrayed her a few times and tried to kill Kirito, but he had been trying to keep her safe. He was almost like Shirou in that way; doing what he thinks would make others happy without consideration for his own self. Archer was- no, is. Archer is a pain in the neck to deal with, but it was in a roundabout protective sort of way.

She punched the chest again, and the wood darkened as her tears fell. "...Idiot! You'd better not be dead. No, you'd better be dead! If you aren't, I'll kill you myself! Do you hear me, Archer?!"

Her words echoed throughout the empty manor. The bounded field around the Tohsaka manor prevented sound from escaping past its grounds, but even then a certain white-haired counter guardian felt a shiver down his spine as he walked with his adoptive sister.

Rin brushed away the tears on her eyes and then wrenched the chest open. "Damn it!" Without hesitation, she pulled out the blue prints and the Kaleidostick and tossed them on the work desk in her room. "I'll figure you out if it's the last thing I do! Stupid Archer! Stupid Shirou! I'll show you all!"

With vigor renewed by loss and determination, the genius heir of the Tohsaka line looked over Zelretch's assignment, pushing herself to comprehend the material. While it was something that could not be recreated without decades of effort, the theory at least should be something she could immediately replicate.

"If that block head can use a True Magic, I'm going to use one too!"

The blueprints contained knowledge far beyond the reach of modern man. It was an alien technology from far in the future that could not be replicated in the current day without extraordinary effort or comprehension.

Never underestimate what can be achieved by a determined genius.

She was not someone to be protected. That much Rin had sworn after her father's death. Heck, she was the one protecting her family! Aoi was in no shape to govern the affairs and Sakura... she wasn't there anymore. The fact that Archer had deemed her needing protection, and even killing himself to keep her safe PISSED her off! Just who the hell did he think he was!?

And so the grief-stricken and utterly pissed off Magus combed over the alien technology left behind by the Kaleidoscope.

In another dimension, it would have taken her the use of the Gem Sword in a fight against her corrupted sister to comprehend the blueprints. She would also never have even thought about touching the Kaleidostick, or have been able to use Structural Grasp on it to comprehend the theory behind the Second Magic.

Of course, since this dimension was not that one and since Rin had already been exposed to technology and Magic beyond human comprehension when she tried analyzing Shirou... well the result was a foregone conclusion.

Maniacal laughter sounded throughout the Tohsaka Manor as Rin held up the reprogrammed Kaleidostick.

Again, never underestimate what can be achieved when a genius is determined.

Shirou sat alone at the kitchen table. It had only been a short time since the black swordsman left, but it felt much longer for Shirou. The reason for that was that the red-head had decided to use the solitude to examine his body in a greater depth than his cursory scan when Rin was there.

The first time, he had just looked for what Lizeris had left behind. He had acknowledged the change in his circuits, as well as his Reality Marble, but passed them over for the source of his Magic.

This time, he slowed down his scan, as well as recalling what he knew of his body before everything changed.

From what he knew, his body hadn't possessed any magic circuits other than the ones he made before using his magecraft. Even then, those had been a temporary construct, jury-rigged to allow Emiya Shirou to channel prana through a body that didn't possess the means to do so. The process left him crossing the line between life and death on a daily basis, but he thought it was what all Magi had to do in order to perform their Mysteries.

It seemed that he had been mistaken in that belief.

Twenty-seven. That was the number of circuits that existed in his body. An array three by three by three. A ternary base.

While the fact that he had magic circuits itself threw Shirou for a loop, the particular number of circuits he possessed, taken into consideration with his new abilities and recent events, had Shirou seriously rethinking his life.

Three was an important number, not just in scripture but for many things in nature as well. It stood for things which were solid, real, and complete. Time could also be split into three; past, present, and future. Then of course there were the three dimensions of space.

But most of all it meant divine perfection.

God's attributes were, after all, three: omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. A holy triad, or trinity.

With his Magic, Shirou currently could be said to be omnipotent. Using it allowed him to be omnipresent. Embracing it would make him all three.

Shirou blinked, the shock of the revelation snapping him out of his scan. "No way."

A coincidence. That had to be it. There was absolutely no way that he had been predetermined for this. Yes, that had to have just been chance.

...And yet, he couldn't ignore the feeling that it wasn't chance. What were the odds that he possessed exactly that many circuits? Most only had twenty, according to what Kiritsugu told him, and even then the number was randomized. There might have been others with a numerically significant number of circuits, but a triad of triads?

Ultimate One. He had been called that when he examined the blade that embodied his Magic. Not only that, but he had even acknowledged that the blade was the Creator's tool, didn't he? So that meant...

"I'm God?"

Shirou wanted to laugh. He really did. After all, it was a ridiculous line of thinking. Just because he had the ability that could rival a Creator and a particularly strange number of circuits didn't mean that he was God.

But he couldn't find it in himself to deny it. The moment he voiced his question, everything he had was saying 'yes, you are'.

Shirou let out a shaky breath and then went back to his scan. The fact that he was apparently the Creator aside, he still needed to understand the changes wrought within himself.

Again, he saw the emerald configuration that was now his source of magecraft. There were the twenty seven lines that represented his magic circuits. They were suspended within an intricate web that connected in and out of each line, a web that Shirou knew to be his nerves. That was what he had been using for a circuit before now, but it seemed that they had gone beyond the make-shift circuits he made them into and were now a part of his magic circuits. Circuits which could carry enough prana to make the amateur magus more than a bit nervous.

To put it in perspective, at the start of the war Shirou had barely been able to hold enough prana in his make-shift circuits to handle ten units of prana, just enough to perform a few reinforcements and structural analysis. Now, the amount that his circuits could hold was far beyond that amount, on a magnitude at least ten thousand times greater, and that was an extremely conservative amount for ONE of his circuits. To sum it up, if the amount of prana he could handle before was like a battery, what he could potentially use now was akin to the total energy of a few stars.

...Sadly, he didn't really have a use for all of that energy that he could think of at the moment. Maybe Rin could find something he could do, though when she found out she'd probably have another breakdown.

Shirou took a step up in his scan, examining the other aspects of his body.

The reinforcement he had performed was still in use. In fact, it seemed to have become a passive action of his circuits, and his body was reinforced to a level that could rival that of a Servant, every gap and flaw in his body structure corrected by prana. Granted, he'd still get cut up from someone like Kirito or Berserker, but he wouldn't be killed in a single blow and could hold them off for a few strikes.

That was good. While he didn't understand the reason why it was occurring, the fact that he could stand against the dangers that were now present in the city and protect those close to him was welcome.

And with that, Shirou opened his eyes, returning to the current time. A glance at the clock on the wall showed that it had only been five minutes since Kirito left, and only two of those had been spent to analyze his body.

He let out a sigh. It would be some time before the black swordsman returned from his patrol, and Shirou still didn't know what to do. While he had a grasp on the scope of his abilities, the solution to saving Sakura was something he still didn't have.

Well, that wasn't completely the truth. Shirou was confident he could use his Magic to erase the Reality that she had been corrupted by whatever it was possessing her, but he wasn't sure what would happen afterwards. Sure, they would be free of the situation, and the monsters roaming the city would disappear, but at what cost? Not only that, but Shirou was having doubts about the ease of performing such an act with his Magic. It seemed that it would be simple, but something about grabbing that blade, even if it was a mental construct, made Shirou feel ill at ease.

Like... like falling into an abyss with no way back. It was a descent promising infinite potential, but with no return once the journey was taken.

So he wouldn't use it. There were other abilities he had to consider, after all, so he would save that as a last resort. His Reality Marble contained all of the materials he needed to create blades, and he could pull them out using Projection. Granted, he couldn't make an unlimited amount anymore and the blades within were what he had carried before the change, but it should allow him to make something to resolve this situation if he put his mind to it.

...The problem was that he still lacked information.

Shirou let out another sigh.

Having the ability to resolve a situation but not knowing how to apply it was a frustrating event. He was a Sword at his core. They weren't meant for all of this planning!

Maybe he'd just have to wing it. It's what he did to save Ayako, after all. Speaking of which, he should go check on her-

"Heya, Shirou!"

Being suddenly addressed caused Shirou to jerk and he banged his knee against the table. Of course, since his body was reinforced at the moment and his strength on a level far beyond normal humans, it caused the poor wooden piece of furniture to fly across the room and smash against the wall. Fortunately, no serious damage was done to either the table or the wall.

Shirou flushed and turned towards the voice.

Ayako stared at him with a raised eyebrow and said, "That's a bit of an over the top reaction, don't you think, Shirou?"

"Sorry, Ayako." Shirou sighed. "Just... stressed. I'm not really in full control of my actions at the moment."

The brown-haired girl nodded and took a seat on the cushion next to him. She was wearing a simple white dress shirt and pants. Since her school uniform was wrecked from being slashed apart by a cursed blade, Rin had taken the liberty of giving Ayako some of her spare clothing to wear.

The ideal scenario would have been to go to her apartment and grab some of her clothes, but considering the current situation they had to make do with what they had.

Ayako stretched and said, "I understand. It's crazy how things have gotten, isn't it? First there's all this about magic, and then the school was filled with monsters... makes a girl just want to sleep and pretend it's all a dream, you know?"

"Ayako... are you alright?" Shirou frowned. Was all of the stress getting to her as well? Or perhaps a lingering side-effect of the cursed wound? He hadn't taken that into account at all when he used the Divine Stone he crafted.

She laughed and waved her hand. "Oh, don't mind me, Shirou. I'm fine. Just... fine." She smiled, but the action didn't reach her eyes. That, and from the way she was rubbing her chest indicated that she was far from alright, but Shirou let the matter rest. Even if he wanted to say something, what was there to say? I'm sorry?

No, Ayako wasn't the type of person to accept something like that. The fact that she was trying to act like her normal self was telling, so Shirou would do the same. It was the least he could do.

"So, Shirou. Were you the one who changed my clothes?"

Shirou coughed, choking on air at the sudden change in subject.

Ayako smiled at that and then shook her head. "Nah, of course not. Emiya Shirou, stripping down a girl to change her clothes... Pft- Like that could ever happen."

"R-right."

Shirou just knew that Kirito would be laughing if he heard this conversation. He could just imagine what the black swordsman would be saying.

Oho? Looks like your getting close to the ending there, Shirou. Just a few more events and then it's the confession scene! Don't let up now!

"Shirou?"

The red-head shook his head and focused on Ayako. He could rue how much Kirito tainted his perspective on life later. Right now Ayako needed his full attention.

"What is it, Ayako?"

The brunette frowned a strange look on her face. "You were spacing out. Did you actually-"

"NO! Absolutely not!" Shirou jumped to his feet, arms crossed over his chest in an 'X'. "Rin was the one who changed your clothes! I had nothing to do with it!"

Her lips twitched into a small smile, and Shirou realized that Ayako was teasing him.

...He blamed Kirito. Something about that guy must be making all the women crazy. Scratch that, something about the guy was making his life crazy. Hell, the guy himself was making Shirou crazy with his constant heckling and comparison to fictional works involving Harems!

"Whatever you say, Shirou."

The red-head sighed and sat back down. There was no way he'd continue the argument with his dignity intact, so he might as well plow through the danger facing it straight on.

Ayako's expression sobered, and her voice took on a serious tone. "What's it like out there, Shirou? The monsters... were they real?"

Shirou sighed. "It's... bad. Yes, the monsters were real. I'm sorry to drag you into all of this, Ayako."

"Idiot."

Shirou frowned. What was with females and calling him an idiot? Granted, he might be slow in some aspects, but he was far from stupid. His grades were in the top ten of the school! That should count for something, right?

Ayako shook her head upon seeing Shirou's expression. "It's not your fault, remember? I was the one who chased after you yesterday and ran into that Servant. I was the one who didn't think to stay close by your side when that Monster appeared." Her expression softened. "Don't blame yourself, Shirou. No matter what happens, it's not your fault. Heck, I'm sure Tohsaka would say the same thing if she was in my position."

"But I was the one who didn't protect you, Ayako." Shirou's voice was soft, guilt-ridden, as he said those words and he cast his gaze downwards. "It was my fault. If I had just been faster, if I had remembered to stay by your side instead of rushing off, if I-"

A soft sensation brushed against his lips and he tasted something sweet.

Shirou looked up with wide-eyes and found himself staring into Ayako's light brown pair.

She leaned back, her face flushed red, but didn't look the bit embarrassed about what had just happened.

"A-Ayako? What was- You... But...?!"

Shirou on the other hand had fallen to pieces.

"Yep, definitely an idiot." Ayako's smile widened, and this one crinkled her eyes with happiness. "But that's what I love about you, Shirou. You worry a lot, and you get into dangerous situations. Still, you never hesitate to think about others first... even at a heavy cost to your self."

Again, Shirou could just imagine Kirito's response to the entire situation.

Hah! I told you so! Social Link, MAX! Thou hast forged a bond that cannot be broken, Master! Congratulations!

He must never find out.

As he had that thought, he realized that Ayako's smile had faded, and a serious expression appeared in its place.

"Ayako?"

Oh no. This wasn't going to end like he thought it was, was it? She had confessed her love to him, and even sealed it with a kiss. He'd saved her twice now, so the flags were all tripped according to what Kirito kept saying. Then, was she going to ask him to marry her? To take responsibility?

"I know what you did to save me, Shirou."

"Now Ayako, I'm glad you feel that way about me, but I'm going to have to- wait, you know what I did?"

She nodded. "I do, 'Sorcerer Shirou'. And that was absolutely, positively stupid beyond belief."

Shirou opened his mouth to reply, but Ayako's fierce glare shut him up.

"I was awake, you know? During all of the magic you were using." She shook her head. "It was stupid. You were breaking apart, Shirou."

That was ridiculous. Ayako couldn't have seen it. Right? Even Shirou didn't know what was going on at the time. Sure, he understood that he was doing something that he shouldn't be doing, but breaking apart?

Ayako sighed. "You did something you shouldn't have done. I was dead, Shirou. I know I was."

"...You were just imagining things, Ayako. It was just a-"

"Don't lie to me, Emiya. Not about this."

Shirou was quiet.

"I was dead. My body had stopped working when that blade bit into my skin, and I even caught a glimpse of Death, you know? But just before he took me, I saw you. Well, I saw you, but it wasn't you." Ayako frowned. "And there was a girl standing by your side."

So not a hallucination. If she saw Lizeris, then Ayako really did know what he did.

"She was the only thing keeping you together, Shirou. You were fading with every second that passed, but then you became clear again and the girl faded. And when it was done, she gave you the key to do it again, right? Something like a sword?"

Again, Shirou was quiet.

"I thought so." Ayako sighed again, this time in resignation. "Shirou. That's something you shouldn't use. Promise me."

"...I can't, Ayako." Shirou shook his head.

There would come a time that he had to use it. That much was apparent. She wouldn't have left it behind if it wasn't something he wouldn't use.

"Shirou. That girl's not there to help you this time. If you use it without someone to anchor you-"

He got to his feet. "You don't understand, Ayako. I can't. If the time comes when the only thing I can do to make things right is to use it, then I'm going to."

Ayako got to her feet as well. "You'll disappear, Shirou! I don't know what that thing's connected to, but just touching it will make you start slipping away! It's not something a human should use!"

"And if that's what it will take to protect you, Rin, Sakura, or anyone else, than I'm willing to pay the price."

Ayako let out a strangled cry and then walked away, heading to the hallway. "I'm calling Minori. You... you can just stay there, Emiya."

The door slid open and then slammed shut and Shirou was alone once more. He could hear her talking, but her voice was muffled from the distance between them.

Shirou touched his hand to his lips, remembering that brief contact.

He... didn't know how to feel about all of this. It seemed that Kirito was right and that Ayako was in love with him. Rin was probably in the same situation. Sakura... well if he looked back on how she acted then Shirou would have to say her affection was pretty obvious.

The red-head let out a groan and leaned against the wall, a hand pressed against his forehead.

"Dammit Kirito. Why do you have to be right about all of this?"

He just wanted to protect them. He just wanted to keep them safe. Dealing with love was something he didn't know how to handle. Not only that, but it complicated things.

He wanted to protect them. That was all. Whether or not that feeling was love, Shirou didn't know. He couldn't lose them, that was for sure. In fact, if it came down to saving them from certain death or losing his own life, he would choose theirs every time.

Why couldn't Ayako understand that?

He sighed and walked outside. Maybe a breath of fresh air would clear his mind.

With that thought, Shirou opened the door to the yard and took a step onto the grass-

"...Are you Kirito's Master?"

-and was confronted by a dark figure.

He couldn't discern the person's features, and their build was slim enough to be male or female. The voice was the same, an androgynous pitch that gave no clue to its speaker.

Despite the figure's obscurity, Shirou knew one thing for certain: that person was a Servant.

For a brief moment, Shirou wondered why the bounded field around his home didn't go off, but then he realized the obvious reason for that.

There was no malice in that figure's presence. While the figure possessed and air of danger and killing intent, it was in the cold and impersonal manner of someone like... an Assassin.

Not good. Shirou was still running near empty. His body was reinforced to be able to combat a Servant, but he didn't have a weapon on hand. He had Sword Skills he could use while unarmed, but they were just single strike techniques for the most part and would leave him open. Not only that, but Ayako was inside.

Projection would succeed as a matter of course, but the blades available to him at the moment with his low reserves were nothing better than mundane swords. The techniques he could perform would increase their ability to clash against a Noble Phantasm, but not for very long.

Think.

What were his options? Reality Marble and his associated thaumaturgy were accessible, but not to a level of ending a Servant at the moment. While he could fight Assassin head on, he didn't want to risk it with Ayako here. The Servant's Noble Phantasm would likely be a sure-kill strike, and he wasn't sure if he could protect Ayako and himself in the same instant it was launched without using his Magic.

And he still didn't know what would happen if he did.

No. He was overcomplicating things. There was a simpler solution here, a trump that he had yet to use this entire war. But for now, he had to play along with the Servant.

"...Who wants to know?"

Assassin tilted their head to the side. "Tell me or die." It pulled out a blade-

End. Kill. Ensure defeat. Regret. Sorrow. Pain.

Shirou blinked, forcing the barrage of emotions out of his head.

It was a long sword, one that seemed familiar. Yet, it was blackened, darkened. A blade of Darkness, filled with negative emotions. A sword that had survived countless battles.

No. He had to focus. Assassin wanted an answer, and Shirou couldn't hesitate in giving it.

"Yes." Shirou tensed, ready to move at the slightest reaction from the dark Servant.

"Good." Assassin nodded. "Then you're the one I need to kill."

The sword jerked through the air, skipping towards Shirou at an unnatural speed.

The red-head was already moving when it reached where he was. Shirou ducked and shot past Assassin's slash.

Again, there was an unnatural movement from the Servant and the sword swept down like a guillotine to cut Shirou's neck, but he was already past it, standing in the middle of the open yard outside of Assassin's range.

Assassin stepped forward, sword ready to attack again, but Shirou had other plans.

His left hand was raised to the blue sky above, so different in atmosphere from the corruption in the city, and then declared, "Come, Kirito!"

A flash of crimson, and the hilt making up the sword shaped Command Seals on his left hand faded away.

Reality cracked, and Assassin charged. In an instant, the space between the two had been cut in half, and the dark blade sought Shirou's neck.

Reality cracked, and another Black Swordsman appeared, wielding an azure blade and a wooden sword pitch black.

They clashed and Assassin was forced backwards.

Kirito retreated to Shirou's side, blades ready but cautious as he surveyed the shadowy Servant.

"Well," Kirito said. "I was in a rush to get back, and I know I've done some crazy things, but I didn't think I could break reality. Sure, Asuna had gone against the rules in Aincrad to save me, but this is getting a bit ridiculous, Master."

Shirou ignored his Servant's ramblings as he realized the precarious positioning they had rearranged themselves in.

He and Kirito were standing in the center of the yard. They had the advantage of open space and maneuverability, but Assassin was only a step away from the door.

And Ayako was still inside.

He had to keep the Servant from entering at all costs.

Shirou prepared a rain of swords in his mind. They were nothing more than an assortment of the weakest blades from Aincrad, but it should at least make the Assassin hesitate.

He needn't have bothered.

"KIRITO!"

Darkness spilled from Assassin and cloaked the yard in shadows.

"You... how could you?!" The Servant's dark blade was raised, and seemed to be bleeding shadows. Not only that, but Assassin's voice was distorted when the words were spoken, sounding more demonic than human.

"Stand back, Shirou."

Kirito stepped forward to face Assassin, though Shirou noted that he seemed apprehensive. "This guy's dangerous. Really dangerous." The black wooden sword and the azure blue rose sword were raised, prepared to attack and defend at a moment's notice.

Assassin's blade was raised, and the Servant settled in a sword stance as well, sword held loosely to the side and crouched for maximum power.

Wait.

Shirou looked between Assassin and Kirito. There was a connection there, and not just because of Assassin shouting Kirito's name.

They clashed.

That stance, that blade... Shirou had seen that before in a dream. And the person who fought like that was-

Kirito faced off against Assassin. Like in their previous fight, the shadows around the Servant dampened his abilities to what a human body would be capable of. But unlike last time, the blades he wielded wouldn't fatigue him. As souls given form, they would actually enhance his abilities in a situation like this.

After all, even in the 'Real World' a sword with a soul would let its wielder perform feats beyond human capability.

"Assassin," Kirito said. "Why are you here? The war has been suspended."

The black swordsman knew that the Servant held a grudge against him, but surely Assassin's Master would have forced the Servant to not get involved.

"Shut up!" Assassin's reply was spirited, more forceful and human than the words said in their last fight. Did something change?

He didn't have anymore time to ponder as Assassin closed the gap to attack.

The dark blade was swung with blinding speed, aimed to cut him in two.

Kirito knocked the attack aside with the azure blade in his left hand and lashed out with the wooden sword in his right.

It was caught.

"What-?"

The black swordsman had to retreat as Assassin's blade returned to sever his neck.

The dark blade cut mere centimeters away from its target, and for the first time, Kirito could see the blade clearly.

It was familiar. Although it was covered in shifting shadows and leaked what appeared to be blood, he recognized it. He couldn't place how or where he had seen it, but Kirito was sure he knew that sword.

He tried to focus, to connect the dots on who his opponent was and why they were so determined on killing him.

And then he caught sight of the dark sword moving to execute another lethal strike.

Kirito twisted his body and wrenched his wooden sword free. At the same time, he twisted it so that Assassin's attack would be blocked.

There was a dull thud as steel met wood, and then Assassin had to retreat as the Blue Rose Sword swept out in a horizontal strike.

The distance opened up between the two Servants, and Kirito had a brief moment to analyze the situation.

Shirou was standing off to the side, watching the fight with wide-eyes. It seemed that his Master had realized something about the enemy Servant.

Their surroundings were completely shrouded now, the Emiya Residence nowhere to be seen. The air seemed heavier too, choked with a sensation that seemed to reek of despair. All that meant for Kirito was that he was slower, but it wouldn't matter much as long as he could read Assassin's attacks like he was doing.

Kirito turned back to his foe and gathered the data he obtained from their clash.

Again, he acknowledged that Assassin was skilled, but it really wasn't the level of a Servant. Not only that, but Kirito could see the pattern of attack that Assassin followed now. Whereas Kirito forced openings and used planning to gain the advantage, Assassin was almost the opposite. It seemed that the shadowy Servant possessed only a finite number of moves, all lethal, but was able to swiftly flow between each with hardly any recovery time.

It wasn't the fighting style of a warrior, or a swordsman. There was no defense in the Servant's style, only relentless offense. Evasion was only a means to transition into the next attack. While the Servant had stepped back for the moment, Kirito had no doubt that it was only to rearrange what moves Assassin would take next.

A low growl came from the dark Servant. "You killed her. You KILLED HER AND YOU WOULD BETRAY THAT?!"

What?

A brief hesitation. The sudden proclamation caused Kirito to miss the start of Assassin's charge, and he was once again forced into defense against the Servant's relentless charge.

He blocked a stab towards his heart and instinctively countered with the same attack.

Assassin weaved around his thrust sword and swung the dark blade up to sever Kirito's left arm.

Kirito stepped back with his left foot. The action caused Assassin's attack to miss, and Kirito lashed out with his wooden sword.

Again, Assassin dodged it, but Kirito noticed something strange when the Servant did that. The evasion wasn't something instinctual, or planned. It was a perfectly timed maneuver that allowed the Servant to avoid Kirito's counter by the minimum amount of action necessary, causing him to miss by less than a hair's width.

Odd, because even if Assassin knew what Kirito would counter with, the evasion would have been slower or faster than the movement that was performed by the dark Servant. Instead, it was like he was taking part in a choreographed dance, where Assassin was a partner that knew the timing of his every move and could avoid them with not just ease, but synchronicity.

Kirito felt a strange sense of foreboding at that realization.

This was someone he knew. Someone who he didn't just know, but someone who knew him as well. Someone close enough to him to know his moves like their own.

"You don't deserve to live! Just. DIE!" Assassin stepped forward and swung the dark sword with a blinding speed, faster than any previous attack. It was like their first fight, the movements suddenly increasing in speed and power.

He could dodge it. Kirito could dodge it. He saw it coming, so he should be able to dodge it.

And yet, he didn't need to. As he was thinking about dodging the attack, his body had already shifted, his stance already in a position out of the slash's trajectory and in the middle of a counter attack.

-His head hurt.

It shouldn't be possible. Even when he entered a berserker-state and forgot about the battle, his body never reacted to attacks in that manner. There had been times where he found himself performing an attack or dodging one from his opponent where he had acted before thinking, but those had been in frantic bursts, actions performed with adrenaline.

What just happened went beyond that. It was like... it was like he did the exact opposite of Assassin's attacks.

A headache. It was coming together now.

The surroundings were coming into focus. Emerald rectangles covering the floor, walls, ceilings. A room with no exit that was bathed in crimson.

Assassin stood in the center of that place, features finally clear to Kirito.

He was young. Not yet a man, but no longer a boy.

He had black hair, bangs that draped over an effeminate face.

The eyes were pitch black, like obsidian, and burned with anger.

He was-

"Kirito...?"

No way.

Shirou looked between the two Servants. There was no mistaking it. Standing face to face were two black swordsman with an identical face, frame, and features.

The revealed Assassin glared at his counterpart. "Did you forget, Kirito?! Why did you betray their memory!? Why did you betray HER?!"

Kirito shook his head. Shirou saw that he looked disconcerted at the identity of his opponent, but the Black Swordsman was still on guard. "I didn't betray them."

"LIES!" The other Kirito raised his blade, face twisted in a look of manic anger and remorse. "You GAVE UP! You didn't AVENGE them!"

With those words, Shirou realized it.

That was the Kirito he saw in his dreams. That was the one who had failed to save them, and who cut down all in his path. And the sword he wielded, it was the same one that he had carried into the fight with the renegade apostle in search of that Christmas Miracle. It was the same sword that had cut down his comrades, ending them without hesitation.

Kirito narrowed his eyes. "Didn't avenge them? I cleared the game!"

His counterpart growled. "You didn't deserve it. You should BE DEAD! Someone like you... someone like me has no right to live on after killing them!"

And with that, the other Kirito charged into combat again.

Kirito fought back, his blades meeting and countering Assassin's attacks blow for blow. But they were equal. Neither gave ground as the two Black Swordsmen faced off.

"No right to live on? What would you have me do, die and let Sachi's death be in vain?!" Kirito knocked aside the dark blade with a heavy slash from the Blue Rose Sword. "I refuse! I can't redeem myself like that!"

"THEN DIE!" The other Kirito blocked a slash from the wooden sword and swung his blade. "That's your redemption, that's your penance! Kirito should have faded away with Aincrad, not continued living! The black swordsman should have been put to rest!"

"Like I said, that's selfish!" Kirito pushed Assassin back with paired slashes from his blades and then held them to the side. "Sachi never wanted that! She-"

"SHUT UP!" Assassin let out an animalistic roar and charged, his blade now pure black. "You don't have the right to say her name!"

Kirito's blades shone with a blue light. "You don't have the right to judge!"

""Disappear!""

They both advanced, swords wreathed with light to execute their greatest techniques.

They would die. Shirou could see that. In this realm, that was the only outcome.

A deathtrap. That was what this place was. Looking around at the rectangular panels surrounding them, Shirou could see what had once occurred, reading the history contained within this room.

Waves of monsters. A mistake that had caused the deaths of Kirito's companions, a result wrought by misinformation. The pain and regret, the hopelessness he had felt when all of his comrades and the girl he swore would live on no matter what died under an onslaught of attacks.

Cursing his fate, cursing the world, he survived only to live on knowing he was the cause of their deaths.

From that point on, he had chased a Miracle.

One received her last message, and gained the strength to carry on in life, swearing to live his life as best as he could to make up for those he had lost.

One betrayed everything for the Miracle, and lost everything, never receiving her message at the end of the night. He swore to use the rest of his life to ensure that world was erased and their lives avenged and succeeded, fading away at the end.

Kirito was betrayed by his promise, failing in his oath to save her.

Kirito betrayed his promise, choosing instead to live on than die in penance for his sins.

They clashed, Dual Blades meeting a Darkness Blade.

The Black Swordsman carrying the partnered swords performed 'Eclipse', a 27-hit strike of the greatest caliber.

The Black Swordsman carrying the blade marred with his remorse matched the attack with one of his own, an unknown technique that Shirou could read but not name or copy.

As the final strikes were launched, the room shattered, the shadowy deathtrap exorcised by a flash of iridescent light.

The three males turned towards the source of the attack.

Standing at gate of the Emiya Residence, armed with a red staff with a head in an angel-wing motif and containing a star in the center, was Rin.

For a brief moment, both Kiritos were stunned at seeing her, especially since the staff was the archetype of a 'Magical Girl'.

Then an arrow, which Shirou saw was heavily reinforced, pierced Assassin's throat from behind and caused the other Kirito to disperse into shadows.

For a few seconds, nobody moved. After it was apparent that Assassin was gone, Rin grinned and turned towards the door leading into the house. "Good job, Mitsuduri."

Shirou followed Rin's gaze to see Ayako standing with a bow and quiver. She smiled at Rin and nodded. "Same to you, Tohsaka. Thanks for getting here so quickly and bringing the equipment."

The twin-tailed magus waved her hand. "There's no need for that, Mitsuduri. Thank you for dealing with Shirou. He's really dense, isn't he?"

Ayako crossed her arms. "I'll say."

Kirito sheathed his swords and then walked over to Shirou's side. "Hey," he said. "Did they just take out an enemy Servant?"

Shirou nodded. "I think they just did, Kirito."

"...And is it just me, or do they seem awfully close for some reason? Wait." Kirito looked between the girls and Shirou. "Did you-"

Shirou lightly tapped his Servant on the back and started walking inside. Granted, since his body was still reinforced, the 'light tap' felt more like being hit by a club. "Quiet. We can talk after discussing strategy with Rin and Ayako."

Kirito winced and rubbed his arm, but that didn't wipe the smug look on his face. "Whatever you say Master. But-"

"Don't say it!"

"I told you so."

Shirou groaned and kept walking. He just knew that Kirito wasn't going to let the reactions from the girls be, especially if he found out what Ayako did earlier.

Well, at least they could focus on saving Sakura now.

That was a plus.

...Though there was apparently another version of Kirito out there who was just as skilled, Ayako knew about his powers, Rin had an expression that was all too mischievous, and Shirou still didn't have a way to save Sakura yet even though he had power rivaling the Creator.

Shirou sighed. It was going to be a long day.

A man watched the group enter the house, invisible through the use of his 'binding' thaumaturgy, bending the light around him. By his side, a tall woman with lavender hair and blindfold stood a silent vigil over the ones her Master had commanded her to protect before being lost.

"...So they are the ones she wished to save."

The man tilted his head, causing his blue hair to move with the action. "They seem formidable, but are you sure they will be able to save her, Rider?"

"...I do not know. But Sakura trusted them."

"Hm. Let us hope that trust was not unfounded." The man turned his back to the Emiya Residence and began walking away. "Come, Rider. There are preparations to be made to end 'All the Evils' and my corrupted self."

Rider stared one last time at the retreating figures and then nodded. "As you say... Zolgen."

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