17 – Realta Nua: Clash
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Rin descended and glared at her ex-Servant as she gathered the energy for a rain of mana blasts into Ruby, held in her right hand.

It was a bit of an extreme reaction, not to mention potentially lethal, but that guy deserved it!

Not only did he pretend to be dead by leaving behind a note that made Rin think he committed suicide or something else that stupid, but that Archer had the nerve to break their contract for that Einzbern girl!

"ARCHER!"

Rin yelled and pointed Ruby in the direction of Ilya and Archer, the Kaleidostick glowing with barely restrained mana.

The two, Ilya and Archer, were off to the left side of the park by the burnt trees, away from most of the conflict. They sat on a tree branch together, high above the ground.

When he heard Rin's shout, the white-haired man turned towards her, raised an eyebrow, then leapt off the branch, arming himself with his favored falchions on his way down.

The moment he landed, Rin release her barrage of mana, and the air filled with a display of crackling white light.

"...Stupid Shirou."

It wasn't enough to kill him. At least, Rin didn't think it was. She had used a lot of mana in that, but Archer- no, Shirou could take it. A lesson had to be proved after all. A point had to be made.

Besides, all she used were just a few minor curses and stun spells. It shouldn't be lethal... to a Servant at least.

As expected, when the dust cleared from her barrage, Archer stood in front of her unscathed save for a few singes around his crimson outfit. His black and white falchions were held by his sides, as if he had just slashed them in front of him. And judging from the fact that only the ground in front of him had been torn apart, it seemed that he had deflected Rin's attack.

Archer smirked, tilting his head a little, and said, "My, what a troublesome Master you are, Rin. Of course, considering you used a command spell to force me to obey you just after summoning me, I guess that's to be expected."

Rin suppressed the urge to scowl and smoothed her expression into a calm smile. "Archer~"

Einzbern giggled from her spot on the tree.

Rin felt her eye start to twitch, but suppressed that as well. She would deal with the upstart Einzbern later, after she properly scolded Archer for betraying her and letting her think he was dead.

Archer's smirk faltered a bit, and Rin could see a bead of sweat forming on his brow. "Er... Rin?"

His questioning tone and expression was so much like Shirou's, her Shirou, that she felt a surge of irritation. "Shut up and take it like a man!"

She snapped Kaleidostick Ruby at Archer and said, "Ruby! Load combat program 'Counter Guardian'!"

With her words, Archer's smirk disappeared entirely, replaced by disbelief, and then grim understanding. "So you have mastered it." He raised his blades and shifted into his combat stance. "Tch, this isn't going to be easy."

Rin scowled when she heard him. She was definitely going to bet the crap out of him now after those words.

"Affirmative, Master," Ruby said. "Activating Kaleidoscope..."

Rin glared at Archer, that foolish version of Shirou who had contracted with Alaya to become a hero.

Though, what she was doing now wasn't much less foolish, come to think of it. She was technically going to borrow power from another 'self' to fight him.

She blamed Shirou for this.

A flash of iridescent light, and then Rin's thoughts came to a halt as another 'Rin' took her place.

Archer kept a wary eye on Rin. He knew quite a bit about the Kaleidoscope now that he could tap into the memories of his other 'selves' and understood that it could be insanely dangerous to use. The fact that Rin was willingly tapping into a parallel self's memories to fight him told Archer two things:

One, she was pissed.

Two, this timeline's Shirou, along with Kirito, was an extremely bad influence.

A kaleidoscope of light exploded from Rin's wand, and then she slumped over.

Ilya called out from her spot on the tree. "Oh, Tohsaka actually learned how to use it? I'm surprised."

Archer narrowed his eyes. "Be quiet for a minute, Ilya. Something's not right."

He didn't remember something like this ever happening with Rin's research into the Kaleidoscope. Just what-

Rin's head snapped up, and she took a look around with a contemplative expression. "Mm, so that's what happened here."

Her eyes locked onto Archer, and a dark smirk appeared on her face.

That didn't bode well.

Archer double-checked his reinforcement and prepared for combat, forcing himself into his familiar mind of steel.

Something told him he would need it.

Rin swept the Kaleidostick across her body and then said, "Don't worry, other 'me'. I'll teach Archer a lesson for both of us. That idiot needs a beating after all he's done to us, right?"

Archer blinked. After all he's done to us...? Oh crap.

The Kaleidoscope could tap into the memories of all the parallel selves a person had. Zelretch often used that facet of it for his pranks, but he mostly used it to gain knowledge on events and skills that his current self didn't know or have access to.

And if Rin had just done the same with a 'Counter Guardian' variation of her self...

Jewel Sword Zelretch appeared in Rin's hand with a flash of golden light, replacing Kaleidostick Ruby.

She straightened, casually brushing her hair to the side, and said, "Now, Shirou. Be a dear and try to live, alright?"

Archer grimaced at the familiar smile on Rin's face, one he knew that promised painful retribution, and prepared himself. If this Rin really was a Counter Guardian, under the current conditions in Fuyuki-

His thoughts were cut off as Rin charged towards him and swung Gem Sword Zelretch. A blast of golden light emerged from the crystalline sword, followed shortly by a barrage of Gandr shots that were at least B-ranked in sheer mana output.

Hell hath no fury like a women scorned, huh?

Kirito blocked another of the Skull Reaper's attacks with Excaliber. Immediately after, Elucidator lashed out, the obsidian sword biting deep into the skeletal centipede's outstretched limb.

The monster let out a rattling roar and leapt back, opening the distance between it and Kirito.

The Black Swordsman let out a sigh. Even though he had fought the Skull Reaper before and knew its general attack patterns, as well as being a much more experienced swordsman than when he had first fought it, the battle was hardly simple.

It had taken the best of the frontline players in Aincrad, as well as Heathcliff's impenetrable defense to beat it the first time, and that was when any attack on the monster's body would deal damage due to the fight taking place in a game.

But this wasn't Sword Art Online, and it definitely wasn't an RPG. Killing a monster like this wasn't as simple as whittling down HP.

This was real life.

"Come now, is that all you have, Kirito?" Gilgamesh laughed and parried an attack by the Skull Reaper. The duo of monstrous bone scythes carving towards the King of Heroes were batted to the side by his familiar golden swords, and then he turned back towards Kirito. "Where is that fire you showed me when we fought, hero?"

...Of course, to Gilgamesh, it was still all very much a game.

The Golden Hero was equipped with his golden armor once more, and wielded the same swords that he had in their last battle. He was the epitome of a 'Max Level Hero', using end-game equipment against the Skull Reaper with an ease that was almost frightening to watch.

Even Kayaba hadn't been able to hold off this boss by himself, and he had programmed it.

"Here." Gilgamesh leapt backwards, opening a gap between him and the Skull Reaper, and appeared at Kirito's side. "Show me."

"Eh?!"

Before he could protest, Gilgamesh shoved Kirito into the rampaging skeletal monster's path of destruction.

I should've known that guy would try something like this!

As arrogant as Gilgamesh might have been, he was turning out to be more and more like his Final Fantasy counter-part with that boisterous attitude of his than Kirito's mental image of a prideful Hero King.

Kirito didn't have anymore time to think, as he found himself facing four monstrous blades seeking to end his life.

He narrowed his focus to what was in front of him, calling upon the Mind's Eye he had earned in his travels, and time slowed to a crawl.

Dangerous. Even if Gilgamesh wasn't taking this fight seriously, Kirito knew that the slightest mistake would be the end of even the King of Heroes.

Instant death, every gamer's- no, every living creature's greatest fear. To be killed without even the chance to fight back, to have life taken away from you without being able to put up even a token resistance.

This opponent had that ability.

Kirito remembered. A single blow to the torso was enough to kill a player in one shot back in Aincrad. Mercilessly and without fail, it would end your life if the Skull Reaper's attack connected.

Blows to the limbs, or the skull, ironically enough, weren't instantaneously lethal. Those dealt critical damage, but weren't enough to deplete a player's HP entirely.

But this was reality. As crazy as it might be with magic, corrupted Holy Grails, and monsters, a scythe to the head, arm, or leg would still kill him.

Time was speeding up.

Kirito knew how to beat it.

The Skull Reaper's left scythe swept across the air in front of Kirito, seeking his head.

The Black Swordsman shifted his stance, taking a step back and to the left. At the same time, he brought Excaliber, held in his right hand, up in a powerful slash towards the approaching blade.

"Hah!"

There was a crack. The Skull Reaper's bladed appendage, which had been indestructible in Aincrad, was damaged.

Gilgamesh laughed. "That's it, Kirito! Show me more of that strength!"

He didn't bother to reply, preoccupied with the other blade heading his way.

Thought he Skull Reaper's blade had been damaged, it didn't stop its charge, and the second bladed appendage lashed out towards Kirito's legs.

He knocked it to the side with Elucidator, and then jumped up and swung Excaliber at the Skull Reaper's chin.

Its head whipped upwards from the force of the blow, and small cracks rippled out from where Excaliber connected. There weren't enough to completely fracture the skull, and they were rapidly mending as a malevolent black light oozed from them, but it confirmed something:

Kirito could beat it, even with a dysfunctional party member like the arrogant King of Heroes.

Gilgamesh scoffed. "Impressive strength, Kirito. But not as great as my own."

Kirito resisted the urge to sigh. That guy... as much as he doesn't want to admit it, he's really a big ham.

The golden blades wielded by the golden hero vanished, replaced by a giant golden hammer, and Gilgamesh rushed past Kirito towards the reeling Skull Reaper. "Observe a true hero's strength!"

This time, Kirito did sigh.

Sorry Shirou, but this might take a while...

Shirou ran across the park, trampling the burnt grass beneath his feet. Ayako was by his side, easily keeping pace with her reinforced body.

He only barely noticed that, too focused on the one waiting for him in the center of the park. Sakura!

They were almost there. At this speed, it would only take a few more seconds before they reached her.

...But Caster was already there.

Her lead had been short, only a minute, but the Magus Servant had reached the center of the park with ample time to harm Sakura.

Shirou's grip on Durandal tightened.

Hurry.

There was no time. He had to protect her, to save her. If anything happened... if he failed again-

"Shirou."

Ayako's voice brought him out of his dark thoughts.

"What is it, Ayako?"

She pointed towards the center and said, "Isn't that... Kuzuki-sensei?"

It was.

Shirou narrowed his eyes. It looked like the Master had taken to the role of the Servant.

Shadows had shrouded the center of the park, obscuring Sakura, Caster, and the Other Kirito from view. Still, occasional bursts of light and mana could be seen flashing from the midst of the shadows.

Standing in front of that, arms held loose at the sides and staring at him, was Kuzuki.

Shirou came to a stop, and Ayako did the same.

The distance was five meters, a gap that any skilled warrior could cross with ease.

Shirou greeted the man. "...Kuzuki-sensei."

The unassuming ethics teacher returned the greeting with a nod. "Emiya. Mitsuduri."

An equally unassuming response. IF not for the signs of conflict behind the teacher and the ongoing battles around them, Shirou would've thought they were back in school.

That thought pulled at his chest, calling up the recent memories of what had happened the last time he was there.

Ayako's death and rebirth. The corrupted monsters. Taiga being knocked out.

Sakura.

Shirou centered himself. She was what was important right now. Extraneous thoughts like failure or doubt could be locked away. Had to be locked away.

Kuzuki gave him and Ayako an impassive look. "So Caster was right. You want to save her."

Shirou didn't bother with a reply, only narrowing his eyes.

No more hesitation. All doubts had already been cast away with his mind of steel.

But Ayako wasn't quite as determined. "Kuzuki-sensei," she said. "Do we have to fight? Can't you just... leave?"

Kuzuki closed his eyes and pulled off his glasses. "I am sorry, Mitsuduri. But you have made your choice and I have made mine."

He tossed them aside, the eyewear spinning towards the ground.

"Sensei!" Ayako gripped her naginata, a pained look on her face. "I don't want to fight you!"

Shirou noted the exchange with the clinical methodology that his steely mindset gave him. He had forgotten that Ayako wasn't a part of this world. She was just an ordinary girl that had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While she had fought fine against monsters and humanoid creatures along the way here, when it came to someone like Kuzuki...

"You have no choice."

With those cold words, Kuzuki closed the gap, moving with the cool efficiency of a peerless assassin.

A sharp 'snake' lashed out to bite Ayako's neck.

She didn't have enough time to gasp, let alone dodge.

She didn't need to.

In an instant, faster than the 'snake' could bite, Shirou pulled Ayako back and blocked the strike with an arm reinforced to the level of the strongest steel.

"...How ruthless, Kuzuki. Attacking the weaker fighter without hesitation, even when she's your student..."

Kuzuki retreated before Shirou could counter with Durandal. The teacher- no, the assassin slipped into a low stance, his arms held at right angles across his chest, and watched Shirou with narrowed eyes.

"Sen...sei?"

A quick glance behind, and Shirou saw Ayako staring at Kuzuki with wide eyes, her body rigid with fear. It seemed that the sudden attack and killing intent from their former teacher had stunned Ayako, and she wouldn't be any use in this fight.

"Ayako." Shirou turned his attention back to the assassin in front of him, ready to act at a moment's notice. "There's no time to doubt. If you can't fight him, stand back. I won't be able to protect you and beat him at the same time."

And that was the truth. Even with his enhanced strength, speed, and skill that his changed body now held, if he had to devote his attention to protecting Ayako, the most he could do against Kuzuki, whose skill in that assassination technique, the Snake, was on a level that could fight Servants, even beat them now that Kuzuki's body had been reinforced by Caster, the fight would only end in a stalemate.

Protect her.

He could do that, but it was exactly what Caster would want. He had no time to waste fighting Kuzuki. Any second now, the battle in the shadowy depths of the park could end, and Sakura could-

...In any case, he couldn't afford any distractions at the moment.

"But Shirou..." Ayako started to say. "Do you really-"

He didn't hear the rest of her words.

There was an enemy to kill.

Archer leapt out of the way of another barrage of overpowered Gandr shots and threw his blades at Rin. The married Kanshou and Bakuya swerved towards the Kaleidoscope user, but were blasted apart by a burst of gold light before they could connect.

"That won't work against me, Archer!"

Rin rushed towards him, Gem Sword Zelretch already brandished for another attack.

"Tch."

It looked like Archer couldn't hold back anymore. Even if Rin was just an ordinary human, the Kaleidoscope and 'alternate' inhabiting her body let her fight on par with him.

Still, he wouldn't kill her. That wouldn't save anyone, or help him reach his goal. No, he just had to incapacitate her.

Easier said than done.

Another pair of reinforced Kanshou and Bakuya appeared in his hands. "Don't think so highly of yourself, Rin!"

Black and white clashed against the Gem Sword and a barrage of spells.

To be honest, Archer was surprised. To keep up with him in melee with essentially a dagger and spells alone was an impressive feat. It made him wonder what this alternate of Rin went through to reach such a level.

But it wouldn't be enough.

Archer grinned as he parried another of Rin's strikes and evaded another barrage of Gandr shots. "Oho? Is this all you can do, Rin?"

She growled. "Shut up! It's because of you that I ended up this way!"

Archer raised an eyebrow. "I caused you to accept a contract with the world to become a Counter Guardian in exchange for a miracle?" He shook his head, an amused smile on his face. "Sorry, but I find that hard to believe, Rin."

She flushed red and leapt back. From the build up of mana around the Gem Sword, it seemed that she had decided to stop playing around. "You... you...!"

I guess I still know how to push her buttons, even after all this time.

"IDIOT!"

It was exactly what he was waiting for. Now, the moment when she released that built up energy as a blast from Zelretch, Archer would-

Wait.

There was gold light surrounding Gem Sword Zelretch like he expected, and the prana output was the same, but the blade... No way.

"Caliburn...?"

Before he could understand what was going on, Rin had rushed into melee again, the Sword of Assured Victory swung in a heavy overhand smash.

"Idiot, idiot, idiot!"

Archer parried the blows, but Rin was relentless.

She wasn't quite as skilled as the original wielder of Caliburn, but Archer could see that she knew how to use it.

That begged the question: who was this 'Rin'?

And if this timeline's Rin had plucked her out from the infinite parallels in the multiverse, why was she chosen?

"It's your fault!"

Lost in thought, he wasn't able to block Rin's next attack properly, and it cut across his chest.

"Even after I made the contract, even after you met Archer, even with all that Saber and I did to help you, you still followed his path! You..." Rin raised Caliburn for a heavy smash. "Idiot!"

Archer easily blocked the emotional attack, but her words brought a frown to his face. That didn't sound familiar at all. His Rin, no matter what path led to him, never became a Counter Guardian or learned to use Caliburn. And that was indeed Caliburn she wielded, not a projection like he would use.

Another distortion caused by this war's corruption?

"Rin," Archer said. "I don't know what happened to you, or what troubles you might have faced, but I-"

"Shut up!" Another heavy slash. "Idiot! Just accept your punishment!"

Archer deflected that attack as well and sighed. Punishment? More like execution...

He didn't want to hurt her. She was Rin, after all. Not only that, but if he did, this time's Emiya Shirou would definitely come after him, even if she wasn't in her right mind at the moment.

He really didn't want to test his blades against a version of himself that had already achieved his Reality Marble and had achieved a True Sorcery.

A quick glance around the park showed that the other battles were coming to an end. If Archer didn't do the same, he would miss his chance.

I guess there's no helping it.

When Rin came in for her next attack, Archer used all of his strength to parry it. The sudden increase in force caught Rin off guard, and Caliburn was wrenched from her grasp, landing on the ground nearby.

Archer emptied his hands and held them to the side. "I'm sorry Rin, but this has gone on long enough."

Rin held out her hand, Gandr shots already primed. "I won't forgive you!"

And for the first time, Archer realized it: She was crying.

Rin shook her head and stared at Archer with watery eyes. "I definitely won't forgive you for leaving me behind!"

"I know." Archer gave her a sad smile. "And I won't ask for it."

A simple purple dagger appeared in his right hand, one he had been given nearly a lifetime ago. He made just one modification to it, and then straightened, waiting for Rin's move.

She attacked, another barrage of Gandr shots aimed at Archer.

The battle was over.

"Sorry, Rin. But I can't turn back now."

She stared at the blade in her chest. "You-"

"Läßt."

The dagger burst in a flash of light, and Rin fell to the ground.

Archer cast a quick glance at her, and then turned away, looking towards his destination. The battle near the center of the park had escalated, and his other 'Self' was in the middle of heated combat.

Ilya hopped down from her perch on the tree and walked over to Archer. "...You really didn't hold back, huh, Onii-chan?"

Archer was silent, already moving towards the center of the park.

He would save them, even if he hurt them along the way.

Seeing that resolve, Ilya could only follow, hoping that her brother succeeded.

It would break him if he didn't.

The fight against the Skull Reaper was going well. Though Gilgamesh was hardly being serious in fighting the monster, he and Kirito had managed to deal quite a bit of damage to it.

Cracks could be seen all across the skeletal creature, and more than a few appendages had been shattered underneath the onslaught of the two Servants.

It was almost pitiful, really, the ease they had in dealing with the creature.

Kirito sighed. If only it had been this easy in Aincrad.

The Skull Reaper was curled up in a defensive manner, limbs circled with only its head and primary blades available to attack.

"Hmph. I suppose you pass, Kirito."

Gilgamesh tilted his head and looked at the beaten Skull Reaper. "Though not as powerful or skilled as I, it seems you have some merit after all." He turned towards Kirito and smirked. "Of course, in my time humans fought creatures like these on a daily basis."

This guy...

Kirito shook his head. "I'm... flattered, I guess?"

Gilgamesh laughed and gave Kirito a satisfied smile. "As you should be! Praise from the King is an extraordinary honor, especially for one like you!"

...Yeah, he's really acting a lot more hammy than I thought he would. Definitely more like his other self than the 'King of Heroes'.

"Come." Gilgamesh stepped towards the Skull Reaper, his golden hammer trailing behind him. "Let us finish this beast so that we can-"

A menacing hiss and then a clattering roar. The Skull Reaper lurched forward, blades raised.

Kirito grimaced and readied his swords, taking a step back and into the preparatory stance of 'The Eclipse'. The fight had drawn on long enough, and it was time to end it.

Gilgamesh glared at the monster, eyes narrowed with righteous fury. "You dare interrupt the King, beast! Let me show you what happens to-"

Again, the Golden King was interrupted.

With unexpected ease for the Skull Reaper's wounded state, the monster leapt over both Kirito and Gilgamesh, leaving them stunned and outraged, respectively.

"You beast! For this slight, I will...!"

Kirito didn't pay attention to Gilgamesh's. Instead, he wondered why the Skull Reaper had jumped over them. For a moment, he thought that it was going to do a final 'Desperation Attack' as bosses were known to do when they reached a critically low amount of health. But it hadn't, instead jumping clear out of the range of Kirito and Gilgamesh.

Something about that last thought brought a frown to his face. No, not run. The Skull Reaper's leap had been to purposeful for a retreat. If anything, it was like-

Like it had found new targets.

Kirito whipped his head in the direction the Skull Reaper had charged and felt his heart drop.

"SHIROU!"

The Snake was a formidable technique. Shirou couldn't deny that.

It was highly unpredictable to someone unfamiliar with it and extraordinary lethal when used by a master.

Like Kuzuki.

Shirou was sent reeling by another of his former teacher's blows. It was a good thing his body was so sturdy after whatever happened last night. Had it been the same as yesterday, even with reinforcement, Shirou doubted he would still be alive. He had taken over a dozen blows that would have killed him in the last minute alone, had his body not been changed.

Ayako was behind him, still conflicted about fighting their teacher. Shirou saw the doubt and hesitation in her. With every blow he took, she stepped towards him, but then she looked at Kuzuki and she stepped back, a deep frown on her face.

But that was fine. As long as she didn't interfere, he could devote all his attention on ending the foe in front of him.

Kuzuki stepped into his guard, preventing him from attacking with Durandal, and sent another 'snake' to bite him, the teacher's fist reaching around to strike at the back of Shirou's head.

Shirou countered the fist with a punch of his own. "Hah!"

Kuzuki was forced back a step to avoid the powerful blow, twisting his attack into a quick defense. His arm whipped around, grabbing Shirou's, and his other shot out in a straight jab at Shirou's chest.

Troublesome. Even if Shirou understood how Kuzuki attacked, the truth was that he didn't have the combat experience or knowledge to counter all of Kuzuki's attacks. Someone like Kirito or Archer could figure it out and fight back, but a novice like him, even if he knew the perfect way to use all his weapons, along with every technique that could be applied using them, couldn't beat Kuzuki in a straight fight.

Shirou took the jab, reinforcing his already sturdy body to minimize the damage, and let the attack push him back a few paces to gain some room to breathe and plan.

Unfortunately, Ayako didn't seem to realize his intentions.

"Shirou!"

Before Shirou could respond, the brunette jumped into the fray, all signs of doubt and hesitation gone.

For a moment, Kuzuki was surprised, and Ayako managed to slash the man's arm with her naginata.

That moment quickly passed.

Kuzuki recovered from his surprise and advanced, his fists every bit as menacing as his combat style's namesake.

Shirou could already see it. A single blow, curving around her head, and another to pierce her chest. That would be all it took for Kuzuki to end it.

"No, Ayako! Get back!"

He stepped forward, intending to pull Ayako away from combat, but it was too late. In an instant, Kuzuki had closed the distance.

Ordinarily, a person with a lance, sword, or any weapon really, would win in a clash with someone unarmed. As it was, Ayako should have held the advantage, since her reinforcement let her match, even if only just, the reinforcement Caster placed on Kuzuki.

An ordinary person wouldn't have been able to approach her, let alone get close enough to attack without getting cut up from her naginata.

But Kuzuki was far from ordinary.

Limbs reinforced to clash with Noble Phantasms lashed out to end Ayako's life.

She let out a frantic defense, shifting into a pattern of attacks that Shirou could see Ayako had practiced numerous times. Slashes, jabs, lunges, and an uppercut cut through the air as Ayako attempted to bar Kuzuki's advance.

It wasn't enough.

With skill that rivaled on inhuman, Kuzuki blocked each attack, moving forward until he matched the worst outcome Shirou had envisioned.

No. Shirou wouldn't allow that.

Kuzuki had his back turned to him, having gotten that way sometime in his skirmish against Ayako.

Shirou ran forward, loading 'Vorpal Strike', and attacked Kuzuki's back.

But the assassin was prepared and the moment Shirou began the attack, Kuzuki had stepped to the side.

So, instead of meeting flesh, Durandal clashed against Ayako's enhanced naginata, which had lashed out just before Kuzuki dodged.

"Ah!"

His heavy blow, enhanced with the power of the Sword Skill, sent Ayako flying back and the naginata out of her hands.

She landed on the ground a few meters away, the breath knocked out of her from the impact.

"Hm." Kuzuki straightened, the distance between him and Shirou once again at five meters. "It seems that neither of you are a match for me." He focused on Shirou. "Emiya. You should stand down."

Shirou didn't reply, staring at Ayako's prone body. Her body that was still in one piece only by the virtue of her weapon being meant to clash against nothing less than B-ranked Noble Phantasms. Had Shirou made her naginata any weaker, he would have bypassed it entirely, and Durandal would have cut her in half.

He would have killed her.

Him, who had sworn to protect her.

Ayako had been hurt, and was almost killed because of his mistake. Because he wasn't strong enough to defeat the enemy before them and protect her. Because she had wanted to protect him.

And there was Sakura too, who had been possessed by a malevolent spirit, only because he hadn't realized her pain. Because she didn't want to trouble him.

All because he wasn't capable. Because he hadn't been able to protect them. Instead, he was the one who had been protected.

Not enough.

Shirou turned towards Kuzuki.

His strength hadn't been enough. His speed hadn't been enough. The magic he had gained was something he couldn't use.

Not enough.

He couldn't accept that anymore. He couldn't accept holding back anymore.

A sword in his mind, aimed at the emerald web that was now his magic circuits. The trigger.

Kuzuki seemed to realize the danger he was in, instincts honing in on Shirou's change in demeanor.

It didn't matter. That wouldn't help him.

A single blow. A technique to kill the opponent in front of him. Something to end the enemy.

The reproduction of unlimited blades was no longer allowed. Instead, a repository of infinite skills were at his disposal.

Search and retrieval. Emiya Shirou flitted through the catalogue of techniques held in his world and grasped one he hadn't seen, but knew he could use.

Kuzuki closed the gap. He changed his approach and his fists sought Shirou's head, intending to crush it before he could complete his spell.

Nine Lives.

The sword in his mind changed to the form of the stone blade wielded by Heracles and smashed against the web.

And then, the 'snake' was surpassed by an attack that had destroyed the legendary hydra.

Shirou came to a stop behind Kuzuki, who was still in the middle of his charge. "This is farewell, Kuzuki-sensei."

The teacher didn't respond.

He couldn't, with his body torn apart in that last attack.

A broken voice called out from behind him. "Sh-shirou... you actually..."

He turned around.

Ayako had gotten up. It seemed that she hadn't been wounded by that attack, only winded. Still, her face was pale, and her eyes were wide as she looked at Shirou. "Kuzuki-sensei... you... killed him?"

Shirou nodded. "He had chosen his path, Ayako. It's... regrettable, but that's how it is."

She nodded and let out a shaky breath. "I get that... I do. But... Kuzuki-sensei..."

Shirou let her be for the moment. His words alone wouldn't be enough to calm the turmoil she felt. That was something she had to settle on her own.

He turned towards the center of the park. Now, all that was left was to-

"SHIROU!"

He spun towards the voice. That hadn't been Ayako who called out. Kirito. It was him. But why did the swordsman sound so panicked.

A gasp from behind, and then Shirou saw the reason.

It was a skeletal creature, a monstrous beast that belonged in nightmares rather than reality. Wicked sharp appendages that looked more than lethal if they struck.

And it was heading right towards Ayako, who was closer towards it than him.

Time ground to a halt under a mind of steel.

This situation was identical to the last time.

A monster had appeared from nowhere to attack Ayako, who happened to be closer to it than him.

The distance between them was short, but he had noticed too late. The moment he tried to take a step, Ayako would be dead.

Time slipped away from him and slowly resumed its normal pace.

Ayako took a step back. Unlike last time, she wasn't stunned and had the sense of mind to try and run. Even so, she would be struck down by the creature's blade before she escaped.

She would ***.

No. He wouldn't let that come to pass. Not again.

I am the bone of my sword.

He was at the core of every blade he made. Those swords, those creations he had were all 'him', borne from his soul.

A connection. The words to connect Emiya Shirou.

He would protect them. He would protect those he close to him. Never again would he let them come to harm.

If he, himself, couldn't reach Ayako in time, then all he had to do was-

Begin synchronization.

Take the place of the blade.

Loading projection.

Emiya Shirou was a Sword. Ayako's naginata was something he made, conceptualized in his mind and created from the materials he carried in his soul.

In an instant, the World inverted.

The naginata returned to Shirou's reality marble, the world of his soul, and Shirou appeared in front of Ayako, bypassing the World by crossing through his own.

For a moment, it appeared even the Skull Reaper was astonished by the feat, as its blades stilled for just a brief moment.

That moment was its end.

"Infinity Moment."

Those words echoed with power, and then the World shuddered as blades tore apart the space in front of Emiya Shirou.

Not even a single fragment of the Skull Reaper reached the ground, the monster completely torn apart by an innumerable number of slashes.

Gilgamesh watched the Faker eradicate the skeletal construct and said, "So that is how it is, hm?"

Kirito had sprinted after the monster the moment it left, shouting his Master's name, leaving Gilgamesh alone in the space where they had first engaged the beast.

"How laughable." A wry smile crossed the King's face. "To think that a 'Faker' could reach the level of the Gods... how interesting this war has become."

The King shook his head and turned his back on Kirito and the Faker... no. He wasn't a Faker anymore, like that Archer. At this point...

"A 'Maker', with Authority that bypasses Gaia herself." Gilgamesh nodded a thoughtful expression on his face. "With someone like that in the game, perhaps I should leave it be? At this rate, it would be more entertaining to watch than participate... though I would like to test his mettle- hm?"

The connection between him and the Fake Priest was gone.

Gilgamesh scoffed at the realization. "Kotomine you bastard... who gave you permission to die?"

The King of Heroes cast a quick glance back at the remaining players in the War and then started walking away. "Hm. Kotomine mentioned something about a 'Queen' and 'Crown' arriving if I remembeer correctly..."

Despite his royal pride, Gilgamesh couldn't hide the eager smile on his face as he headed back towards the church. "It's only fitting that a 'King' greet them to his city then, isn't it?"

Shirou blinked, staring at the haze of blue particles floating in the space before him.

"Shirou! Ayako! Are you alright?"

Kirito was running towards them.

The monster was gone.

Ayako was safe.

Warm arms wrapped around him. "Shirou... you protected me. Again."

He had, hadn't he?

He, Emiya Shirou, had actually protected someone. Granted, it was the same person that he had always protected in this war since the time he saw Shinji and his Servant preying on her, but the fact was that he had protected someone.

He had actually managed to do the impossible and protect her when she needed him most.

Shirou let his steely mind recede just a bit, warmed by that thought.

And then he focused. He still needed to rescue Sakura.

Ayako stepped back as Kirito reached them. The Black Swordsman looked concrned, but seeing the two like that, he smiled.

"Oho?" he said. "I guess I didn't need to worry after all."

There was a definite teasing note to his words, but this wasn't the time for that.

"Kirito," Shirou said. "Where's Rin?"

The swordsman shook his head. "I'm not sure. She headed off in a different direction remember? I'm sure she's fine though. Knowing her, she'll probably drop in when we need her the most and yell at us for being careless."

Kirito's words were still light-hearted, but Shirou couldn't help but feel uneasy.

Still, Shirou knew that he could trust her to be safe. Rin wasn't like Ayako or Sakura. She could take care of herself, especially now that she could use the Second Magic.

But he couldn't shake the feeling that something had happened to her.

Shirou sighed. "I hope you're right, Kirito."

Kirito laughed. "Of course I am! Trust me, she's hardly in any danger... especially with that wand." He shook his head. "She's seriously way too overpowered for her own good."

Shirou nodded and turned for the last time towards the center of the park. The shadows shrouding it had faded, and he could see Caster facing off against the Other Kirito. Sakura was still floating there, suspended by towering shadows.

He was surprised to see that Caster was still alive. Against someone like the Other Kirito, Shirou thought that she would already be dead.

He shook his head. That wasn't important. Sakura. That was the reason they were here, the only reason he was here. And she was only a few steps away.

"Let's go."

No more words were needed between the three, and they broke out into a sprint towards Sakura.

The Other Kirito noticed their appaorach and shifted his attention from Caster to Kirito. "YOU-!"

Caster used the fake Assassin's lapse in attention to attack with her weapon, a jagged knife that gave Shirou a sense of foreboding just from looking at it.

Rule Breaker: All Spells Must Be Broken

The name of the weapon echoed in his head, and a look of triumph appeared on Caster's face.

The Noble Phantasm of Negation and Betrayal activated-

Just as a copy struck Sakura's chest.

Two voices called out, one feminine and the other a familiar masculine, all too similar to Shirou's own...

""Rule Breaker.""

And then the world shattered and darkness spilled out.

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