22 – The Path of a Hero
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A temple bathed in the light of the setting sun. Upon Mt. Enzou, it was where Angra Mainyu had taken residence, along with his 'Servant'.

The mountain that held the foundations of the Greater Grail, what served as the hardware for the Holy Grail Program managing the Heaven's Feel Ritual. The temple upon it was where the Holy Grail would descend when it was formed.

It was where Angra Mainyu would reach the Origin.

Inevitable. Now that he had copied Emiya Shirou's Authority, assimilated the Cardinal Program, and obtained plenty of high quality souls from the Enforcers and Executors he had come across, Angra Mainyu had everything he needed to remake existence into his image.

A crimson reality, one where Humanity bathed in its sins and became consumed by them. One where 'All the Evils in the World' ran rampant.

One where Angra Mainyu would reign as its God.

It would be the ultimate ritual, one that would alter the tapestry of reality forever.

Distortions could already be seen. Space was bending in on itself as the ritual began, folding around the core that was Angra Mainyu. To protect the one who lay at the center, images and remnants from within the Cardinal Program emerged to serve as obstacles towards those that would stop him.

An incomplete protection. Because he had just begun, the fortress he had envisioned was not yet solid. His 'Workshop' was still unfinished, though it would be impenetrable when it was completed.

Before then, someone could enter, and someone did.

Angra Mainyu turned from growing 'void' he had been examining and faced the intruder. "So you have come, Gilgamesh."

An expected threat. The greatest vanguard of the World and Humanity... the Counter Guardian sent to end the greatest threat to them all.

And the threat that Angra Mainyu posed to everything could already be seen in the area around them.

The temple that was once a monument to the gods, where monks had practiced what was holy, was now a monument to evil. Blackened by curses and laced with blood, it was a far cry from its former self. A mere shadow... no. A dark reflection.

Whether the monks that inhabited it still lived was unknown, but any human that stepped within this place would have been instantly assimilated by the sheer amount of curses.

Then there was the air surrounding them, as heavy as the greatest sins, that seemed to draw breath rather than bestow it, cracked and splintered with violet energy as a 'void' floated above them.

Gilgamesh looked upon it all and scoffed. "Such a pointless endeavor. Humanity's light cannot be vanquished with just this."

Angra Mainyu only smiled. "Perhaps. But it will be as they wished. An end and the embodiment of their sins... nothing more than their desires come to life."

"Hmph." Gilgamesh turned towards the one beside Angra Mainyu, hidden in the shadows. "And you, boy? Is that wish of yours worth condemning so many worlds... even your own into oblivion?"

KIRITO's answer was to draw his blade, shadows spilling as its true form was released.

"You will not sway him," Angra Mainyu said. "After all, I have already granted his wish."

Another shadow standing behind KIRITO, one that looked like a timid girl-

"Fool." Gilgamesh opened his Gate and pulled out a sword that wasn't a sword, crystallized in an age before man. "Unlike him, you continue to delude yourself in worthless fantasies."

Angra Mainyu laughed and began walking away, sinking into the depths of the temple. "A delusion it may be, Gilgamesh. But your 'Truth' will not break through that fantasy."

The girl vanished into the shadows along with Angra Mainyu, and KIRITO lowered into a sword stance.

"Impudent boy... wake up."

Ea's three rotaries swirled, cracking the very fabric of space and time and opening an abyss that returns all to nothingness, one that crushes all of creation.

"Enuma Elish!"

And KIRITO was eradicated, along with the distortion forming over the temple.

But-

"What?"

-As one borne from nothing to reduce the World to nothing, and with a Master that was expelled from the Universal Revelation of Inscribed Creation, such a fate was not enough to end him.

Shadows spilled forth from the abyss, and a being of pure darkness swung its blade.

Like that, Gilgamesh was devoured by All the Evils in the World.

And once again, the temple was enveloped in curses.

A guest room. One with a bed on one side, and a table with a few chairs on the other with the door between them, with a window opposite that.

Shirou was seated at the table, head bowed in thought.

After being dragged around by Rin in her not so subtle attempt to cheer him up, Shirou managed to convince Rin to let him get some rest.

Of course, he planned to do nothing of the sort.

They would move towards Ryuudou Temple at sunset, meeting up with Lancer's Master before splitting up to perform their own roles.

Ilya, Rin, and Archer would enter the cavern beneath Mt. Enzou to dismantle the Greater Grail.

Kirito would follow them and look for signs of the Cardinal Program, which would have likely taken physical form.

And Ayako... she would stay here with Lancer, safe in the most fortified position in the Tohsaka Manor with that Servant as her guard.

To be honest, Shirou was still uncomfortable about leaving her with Lancer. Though the guy seemed to be sincere and easy to get along with, unlike Archer (who still irked Shirou despite the understanding they had reached), there was just something... vulgar about leaving him alone with Ayako that Shirou couldn't quite put into words.

Maybe it was that lance of his...

He had no real objections to Ayako being protected by Lancer though. It seemed that Lancer's Master had commanded him to become Rin's Servant as a show of good faith, and even assented to have Rule Breaker used to erase the connection between them so Rin could forge a new one.

It was extremely suspicious how genial the unknown Master was being, but considering the fact they had no time left and the war had pretty much descended into madness, the odds were that the Master was on their side for the moment, or at least not an immediate enemy.

Regardless, Shirou still found it a better option to leave Ayako with Lancer than bring her along.

While it might have been hypocritical of him to do so, Shirou would rather trust a known quantity with her safety at the moment than himself.

He still couldn't shake the thought of having Sakura's fate repeat itself with Ayako... No. That was why he was here. To assure such an outcome wouldn't occur.

Shirou took a deep breath and focused, looking inwards and powering his circuits.

The Durandal he had forged served him well in the battle to reach Sakura, but it had vanished the moment he drew that blade, the one that embodied his Magic.

It wasn't the one he needed.

After witnessing the Counter Guardian's Reality Marble, Shirou had plenty of swords to choose from, but they wouldn't be of help.

He was different from his counter parts. While he had the 'blueprints' of the swords he saw, there was no automatic forging process for him in his Reality Marble.

Archer, for example, could call forth any of the Noble Phantasms he had recorded in 'Unlimited Blade Works' at a moment's notice, and was limited only by his reserves. That problem was the initial reason why he wanted to change Masters from Rin to Ilya, according to Rin's earlier thorough interrogation of the guy.

Unlimited Blade Works, an infinite production of blades. Though they suffered slightly in lack of quality compared to the original, the sheer quantity was enough to make up for it, allowing that guy to find a perfect counter towards any enemy he faced. In addition, it wasn't locked to 'Sword' like him, allowing for the replication of things like axes and lances as well, so long as they were 'Blades'. And that didn't even begin to scratch the surface, considering there were defensive armaments stored in there too.

Shirou couldn't do that.

Where Archer and that Counter Guardian, as well as the other Shirous that Rin knew of, were 'Fakers' that could imitate the skill and duplicate the blades they saw, albeit to a lesser degree than the original, Shirou himself was more of a 'Wielder', who could match, if not surpass, the original wielder of the swords he saw.

Archer and those like him obtained their strength through imitating others to the extreme, like how the Counter Guardian who Shirou fought earlier followed Kiritsugu's ideal without regrets. That fact, born from their shared beginnings of being 'empty' when Kiritsugu found them, showed in their Reality Marbles, allowing them to instantly imitate the strengths and weapons of others with a single glance.

Shirou had turned away from that path and forcibly achieved a Miracle by obtaining a Magic from reaching the Origin. In doing so, he had become more aligned with his origin of 'Sword', which attuned his soul and Reality Marble towards that.

Unlike his counter parts, he was able to fully sympathize with the 'memory of steel' stored in the blades.

Rather than imitate, Shirou became.

But there was the drawback. Memories of blades, what they experienced from the forging process to when they inevitably shattered, were what was stored within his soul, not the blades themselves. This was what allowed him to use the 'Sword Skills' from that virtual world.

They were nothing more than passing dreams of what were, fantasies that he, as the sole person in that world, were free to observe. Skills and instincts engraved in steel that he could apply to himself to become the ideal Sword Saint, but not actual blades he could draw forth, unless he decided to store them there himself.

In short, his Reality Marble recorded the memory of blades, but not the actual blades, when Shirou saw them. It still held the capability to store blades like Unlimited Blade Works, but that required Shirou having an actual sword to store and take out later, like he did with Durandal.

But that was where the other gifts Lizeris had left behind came in handy, the 'System Commands' she held from her fragment of the Cardinal Program.

They were many, and Shirou hadn't examined them all, but one in particular had stuck out to him: Divine Instrument Forging.

It was something that was used in the World she held Authority over, a ritual of sorts that took the 'accumulated memories' of an animal, plant, or object and crystallized it into a high 'Priority' item.

Or in other words, something that allowed him to create Noble Phantasms accepted by Gaia, Noble Phantasms that might even surpass the original due to the inherent nature of the Divine Instrument Forging process granting additional abilities.

...This is what would allow Shirou to save them.

It wasn't just the memories of the swords he held within his soul that he could use in forging a Divine Instrument. Anything with power and history could be used in that ritual, and it was with that in mind that he forged a 'sword'.

Shirou emerged from his inner world and took a look at the blade he had made with all of his powers. Something that was his and belonged to no one else, the embodiment of everything he wished for, everything he swore to protect.

The final trump card should all else fail, one that would fix it all and continue to protect them even if he himself could no longer remain...

A knock on the door.

Shirou jumped and quickly stored the blade in his world.

Right after that, the door opened and Kirito walked in. "Shirou."

"Kirito."

He returned Kirito's greeting with one of his own without thinking, but then he realized that something was off about the swordsman.

It was subtle, but there was a slight difference in the normally confident demeanor Kirito held.

But before Shirou could figure out what it was, Kirito walked over to the chair next to him and sat down.

"It's finally time, huh?"

Shirou glanced towards the window and saw that the sun had started to set in the time he spent within his world.

"Yeah," he said. "It is, isn't it?"

Kirito stretched and said, "You ready? Once we leave, there's no going back. This fight... after we finish, it'll be over."

It would, wouldn't it? In just a few hours, this entire war would be nothing more than a bad memory, like the Fuyuki Fire ten years before.

...Of course there would be plenty of repercussions from this, considering that both the Executors and Enforcers got involved. The most important rule of being a Magus, that is not exposing magic to the mundane world, was pretty much blown to bits by now.

Though the Clock Tower and Church were probably dealing with that at this very moment. Maybe blaming the scenario on a bio-terrorist attack gone haywire and releasing both gases that targeted the nerves as well as bio-engineered monsters? A bit unlikely, but considering how deeply entrenched those two organizations were in society...

"Not much to say, huh?"

Kirito's voice broke Shirou out of his thoughts.

"Of course," Kirito continued. "Considering all that's happened, I don't blame you..."

Shirou raised an eyebrow.

Something was definitely off with Kirito. Was he worried about Shirou? Maybe concerned about what he felt after Sakura- after she had died?

Shirou gave him a small smile. "I'm fine, Kirito."

There was a moment of silence where Kirito did nothing but stare off into space. Eventually, he sighed and said, "I'm really not too good at these things, am I?"

Eh? What was he-

Shirou's mind came to a halt when a sword suddenly appeared on the table.

It was a blade of glittering golden metal, and of a make too fine to be of mortal hands. A sword that positively radiated power, and yet held a cool radiance, as if restraining itself for one worthy of wielding it.

He had seen it before, in Kirito's hands earlier, the Holy Sword from that world of Fantasy...

"Excaliber?"

He blinked and turned towards Kirito.

The Black Swordsman nudged it towards him. "Take it, Shirou."

Shirou looked at the sword in front of him again, and realized that it had changed. As if acknowledging a new wielder, its form shifted.

Different. It was the same sword that Kirito had wielded, but at the same time it wasn't. A slight alteration in the accumulated memories, such that it wasn't the Holy Sword Cutting All of Steel and Tree but rather...

Shirou's eyes widened as he realized what the sword in front of him truly embodied.

"I can't take this, Kirito. Excaliber is something that you-"

Kirito interrupted him. "Excaliber is something that you use to protect those dear to you. A sword to be used only for the sake of others... and something that represents the bonds between you and your friends."

It didn't need any further explanation.

Shirou would be fighting for the ones he cared about, fighting to protect the future before them where everyone could live in peace.

Because of that, it was only obvious that the one using Excaliber should be him, but-

"Kirito, this blade belongs to you though. I can't just-"

Kirito shook his head and got to his feet. For a moment, he was silent, but when he started speaking it wasn't about the sword between them.

"...This is probably going to be the last chance we get to talk like this, Shirou. Once we leave, it'll be nothing but back to back fighting."

And with that, Shirou realized why Kirito was acting so weird, why he gave Shirou his strongest blade.

...That guy wouldn't be here after this battle. No matter the outcome, with the war's end Kirito would return home.

It was something that was easy to forget. Unlike the other Servants in this war, Kirito wasn't actually dead. There were people waiting for him to return. For him, this time in the war would become nothing more than a passing dream...

One that he would wake up from, leaving Shirou and the others behind.

"You're a good guy, Shirou. Sure, there were parts where you dropped the ball, but all in all..." Kirito shook his head. "It's been an honor being your ally, Shirou. It was a bit weird with all the stuff about magic, especially when the monsters from Aincrad started showing up again, but..."

Kirito was rambling, but Shirou could understand why.

This... it would be good bye.

"Kirito-"

"Kazuto."

Shirou blinked at the sudden interruption. "Huh?"

Kirito smiled at him and held out a hand. "I kinda lied to you about my name. It's actually Kazuto. Kirigaya Kazuto. Though I'd still prefer you calling me Kirito, I don't know if we'll see each other again after this, so..."

"...Yeah." Shirou grabbed his hand. "I understand, Kirigaya-san."

Kirito's smile twisted to a wry one. "So formal after all this time, Shirou?"

Kirigaya Kazuto. Someone pulled from the future by Lizeris, a boy who became a hero in another time and world.

Whether it was Shirou's future that Kirito... that Kazuto came from was yet to be seen. Even so...

"Thanks, Kirito."

Kirito paused for a moment, and then smiled. "No problem."

He waved towards Excaliber and said, "Now pick that up and let's go. We don't want to keep the big bad waiting much longer, do we?"

Shirou grabbed Excaliber and stored it away in his world, and then got up. "Let's go."

The journey through the town was a solemn one. Quiet.

It was strange, considering that it should have been resounding with the sounds of combat with the Enforcers and Executors in town. But instead, Fuyuki was deserted, appearing more like a ghost town than the vibrant city it was just the night before.

Through this silence, a group of five travelled.

Archer was at the front, his reinforced gaze scanning the area for threats, arms ready to draw whatever swords necessary to counter any that appeared.

Ilya was by his side, her usual childish demeanor replaced by one that showed her true age. Like Archer, she scanned the surroundings for any threats, and was prepared to back up her 'Onii-chan' with her Wishcraft.

Shirou took up the rear, with Rin by his side and Kirito in front of him.

The Black Swordsman was also scanning their surroundings, eyes flashing yellow as he used some more skills from Aincrad to search for enemies, and kept his hands hovering over the hilts of his swords, Elucidator and another blade that he hadn't revealed. Though from what Shirou could see, the second blade was a slim one, with a blue hilt that bore a white cross.

"...I don't like this," Kirito said.

The streets were empty. At sunset, the current time, the sight wasn't uncommon. But when compared with the hectic journey they had on the way to the park, it was eerie.

It seemed like all the monsters had just... vanished. Dissolved into thin air, like wraiths that were gone now that their purpose was finished.

"It must be Angra Mainyu," Archer replied. "The lack of monsters, Executors, Enforcers... only that guy could have done it. There's probably not much time left."

Rin scoffed. "No time, no time... why can't we just freeze it already?" She turned to Shirou and said, "You can do that, right Shirou? I mean, with your stupidly broken Magic, couldn't you-"

Shirou exhaled and ignored Rin's rant. She wasn't trying to be hurtful by saying that. Just practical. Besides, they were all stressed, and Rin wasn't the type to hold back her thoughts under pressure.

So there's no need to feel upset by the fact that she was callously disregarding what had happened the last time he used his Magic on a whim. Right.

Ilya spoke, her voice slow and scolding, like she was speaking to a child. "Rin. Don't you think you should be more careful of what you say? Even I know better than that!"

"A-ah." Rin turned back towards Shirou and then lowered her gaze. "Sorry Shirou. I wasn't thinking."

He gave her a small smile. "It's alright, Rin. We're all stressed here."

An awkward silence followed, and the group continued along their way.

Shirou tried to remain calm. Tension would only slow his reactions if danger appeared. So because of that, he should stay relaxed. Calm and ready, like sword waiting to be drawn-

No.

Not a sword. The last time he had done that... he was a sword, yes, but he was also the wielder. His powers didn't control him, he controlled his powers.

Slow breaths.

Trust himself. He had to trust himself to do the right thing. After all, he was the only one who could stop himself from going too far.

He could do this. No, he had to do this.

"You've arrived at last, Emiya Shirou. Tohsaka Rin."

A stern voice cut Shirou out of his thoughts.

They had arrived at the foot of Ryuudou Temple while he was lost in thought. Before them were the stone steps leading up the mountain, the site of their final battle.

But before then, there was someone in their way on those steps.

He looked like an older Shinji, dressed in a black and red pinstripe suit with matching pants.

...It wasn't his former friend though. That guy was definitely dead, and nothing more than ashes after Lancer took care of the mess.

He deserved nothing better, considering what he had done to Sakura.

...Anyway, the man in front of them couldn't be Shinji. Though he carried himself with a confident air, it was nowhere near arrogant. And while he looked like he could be a lady-killer like Shinji was, the man's face was set in a severe expression that said "Don't waste my time".

Ilya was the first to greet him, and when she did it was in a voice that was slightly off from the usual. "Makiri Zolgen. So you have found yourself once more?"

Makiri Zolgen? Wasn't that what Rin said Zouken's name was before he changed it?

Lancer said they'd meet his Master at the foot of Ryuudou Temple. So there was no doubting that the man before them was the one who helped them and sent Lancer to save Rin.

But then... the Master of Lancer and Rider was...

Archer tensed, and Shirou saw that he was already preparing to attack, ready to draw blades from his Reality Marble at any moment.

Shirou did the same, and prepared to project a sword to charge with Vorpal Strike.

Then the man spoke again. "Illyasviel von Einzbern... the latest heir to Justeaze's memory."

Zolgen closed his eyes. "Yes. Through a miracle, I have recalled it and found my answer." When he opened them, his gaze was sharp, focused. "But now is not the time to reminisce on the past. To eliminate All the Evils in the World... that is why you all have come, is it not?"

The centuries-old magus turned his gaze towards Shirou.

Looking at those piercing eyes, something happened and Shirou understood.

To eliminate All the Evils in the World. That was the only dream of the man before him. A shared ideal between the founders of the Holy Grail War. To surpass human limits and reach a utopia where no one would be harmed, where sickness and despair didn't exist.

A brilliant and youthful wish, one that he had wanted to make happen no matter how much he was scorned or beaten along the path...

Shirou gasped and took a step back, forcefully breaking eye contact with Zolgen.

What was that?

He hadn't been hallucinating. For an instant, it was like he saw the 'Truth' of Makiri Zolgen. Bypassing all falsehood to look at the naked soul, the 'Origin' of the man before him and his history.

No, it wasn't a fluke. Hadn't something similar happened before? Where he understood the origin and concept of something the instant he saw it? Like when Caster teleported and when he faced Kuzuki?

"Ah. You are becoming attuned to it." A slight smirk on the man's face. "Excellent, we may succeed after all."

"Shirou? What's wrong?"

Rin's concerned voice. She looked between Shirou and Zolgen, her expression shifting from worry for the former to anger for the latter.

"You! What did you do to Shirou?"

She started marching towards the man, drawing Kaleidostick Ruby as she did.

"Hmph." Zolgen crossed his arms. "I have done nothing to him. This is nothing more than the inevitable consequence of him reaching his Magic."

Rin didn't seem to believe that. Or rather, it didn't lessen any of the enmity she held towards the man.

"I don't care if you're Makiri Zolgen or Matou Zouken." Rin practically spat the name out. "You have a lot to answer for, you abominable pathetic excuse of a-"

"Rin," Ilya said. Her voice was strangely formal as she continued. "Zolgen is not our enemy."

From beside her, Archer scrutinized Zolgen for a few moments and then nodded. "Yeah... this guy's different somehow. He's not that bag of flesh you're thinking of, Rin."

"Of course he's the same person!" Rin spun and sent a glare at them all. "Can't you see?"

She turned back towards Zolgen and snapped Ruby at him. "Look, I don't know how you got back your youth, Matou Zouken, but what you did to S-Sakura... w-what she had to go through...!"

Shirou placed a hand on her shoulder. "Rin. Calm down."

A moment of tension. It seemed that Rin wouldn't back down, but then she slumped, as if all the energy left her.

Makiri Zolgen and Matou Zouken. They were one and the same, with only time separating the two. Yet... Shirou could tell. Those two were like him and that Counter Guardian: two individuals that started the same, yet took drastically different paths.

"He's an ally here. I know it. And if he isn't..."

Shirou turned towards Zolgen. He didn't need words to convey his message.

If that guy turned out to be a threat. If he was truly an enemy, despite what Shirou had seen, despite what the man had done for them in sending Lancer to save Rin...

Shirou would end him.

Zolgen scoffed. "It seems that you aren't the naive boy you were at the start, Emiya Shirou. But we waste time."

He turned and looked towards the top of the stairs, towards Ryuudou Temple.

Shirou followed his gaze.

...Distorted. That was the only way to describe the sight there. It was unbelievable that he hadn't noticed it earlier.

Writhing shadows that seemed to come alive as you looked at them, trees bathed in crimson sunlight appearing to be blood-stained with dripping leaves, air that seemed to shimmer and breathe...

"Angra Mainyu."

"Yes, Angra Mainyu. All the Evil in this World. He is the one that you must vanquish, Emiya Shirou. You and you alone."

Zolgen turned back towards them, and Shirou saw the crimson patterns glowing along his arm. "Illyasviel von Einzbern. Tohsaka Rin. As I and your ancestors had created this Grail, we must dismantle it. And you, Kirito... the one summoned by the aberration in the Grail. You must end that."

"Hold on." Rin held up her hand, suspicion still clear in her eyes. "What makes you think we'll do what you say, Zolgen? And how do we know you're not just planning to betray us when we get there? Especially with all those Command Seals on your arm?"

"Rin-" Shirou started to say.

"No, Shirou. I don't care what you, Ilya, or anyone else thinks! This guy... even if he's not exactly Matou Zouken, he's still a manipulative amoral Magus."

Zolgen started walking up the steps. "It matters not what you think, Tohsaka Rin. They have already noticed us."

The shadows around them were shifting, violet light and crimson bleeding into their surroundings.

Zolgen turned back one final time. "I suggest you follow."

Rin glanced around, clearly unhappy with the situation, but started after the Magus, Ilya and Archer following after her.

They vanished as Zolgen called up a shadowy portal, leaving just Kirito and Shirou alone.

"...You think they'll be alright, Shirou?"

"I-"

A distortion, like when the Counter Guardian used his Reality Marble. That was the only warning Shirou had before the world around him shifted, and he was left alone.

...Or so he thought.

"Hello there, Shirou."

He turned towards the voice and glared at the one standing there. "Angra Mainyu...!"

Kirito was instantly on guard.

"Shirou? Did you use your teleporting trick again?"

The swordsman knew Shirou hadn't, but just in case...

No response. It looked like Shirou wasn't anywhere close by, though whether he used his teleporting thing or not was still up for debate.

Kirito drew Elucidator from its sheath and scanned the surroundings.

Shadows everywhere, slowly covering the area around him. It was almost like the world was being eaten away, pieces disappearing back into a black void.

"...Guess I should worry about myself first, huh?"

It was a slow creep, but the shadows were starting to surround him, closing in. The only area unaffected seemed to be the stone steps above him, leading to the temple.

He took another look around, and saw that the only way out of this mess was up the stairs.

"I don't want to find out what those shadows will do to me, so..."

The pace of the shadows sped up, as if sensing his resolve.

"Here we go!"

A burst of speed. Kirito dashed up the steps the moment the shadows surged.

A wave of darkness on his heels, the Black Swordsman raced towards the temple-

"Racing to a temple... running to a temple... temple run?" Kirito shook his head. "Someone has a strange sense of humor out there..."

He reached the top just as the last step vanished, and the world changed to a snowy field that was all too familiar.

"Beneath the tallest fir tree, a miracle can be found... so this is how you want to end it, 'me'?"

An Avenger. Someone who had lived for nothing more than death, the compensation for losing someone dear.

With Kirito's words, that boy who lost it all and cut everything in his way appeared, stepping forth from behind the tree.

KIRITO raised his shadowy blade without a word, like the spirit from the Christmas tale.

"...Fine. I'll show you how wrong that path was."

Kirito brandished his sword.

"I'll show you what you gave up for the sake of that false dream."

The steel fortress in the sky: Aincrad. The original had been destroyed with the defeat of its creator, but the memories of it remained in the Cardinal Program.

Sword Skills, Items...

Monsters.

As Angra Mainyu had taken control of the Cardinal Program, those were now his to use as he saw fit.

So, when Rin and the others emerged from the shadowy portal, they arrived to the sight of dozens of the bosses from Sword Art Online lying in wait.

Archer stepped forward, Kanshou and Bakuya traced in an instant. "The Skull Reaper, Illfang, The Gleam Eyes... Let me guess. We're going to have to fight through all of the bosses from 'Sword Art Online' before we reach the Greater Grail."

Rin sighed and began charging Kaleidostick Ruby. "I should've known it'd end up like this..."

Zolgen barely glanced at the monsters before him before raising his hand. "Rider. Defeat them."

A flash of crimson light, and one of his many Command Spells vanished. Immediately after, Rider appeared in a surge of white light, annihilating three of the monsters in one blow.

Ilya turned to Archer. "Onii-chan... why aren't you fighting? Don't let her beat you!"

"Yeah, yeah..."

The former Counter Guardian rushed forward, cutting down monsters left and right with the monster slaying blades.

It would be the first of their many battles to the Greater Grail.

Shirou didn't hesitate. The moment he saw Angra Mainyu, he rushed forward, his body already moving before he even finished examining his surroundings.

He only briefly acknowledge the fact that he was in an antechamber, and that Angra Mainyu was sitting on an obsidian throne in front of him before he rushed forward, hand already grasping around the imaginary hilt of a sword-

And then he was intercepted by a storm of blades.

Shirou jumped back, barely avoiding a death of being skewered by Noble Phantasms.

Noble Phantasms that... were the original prototypes?

Shirou looked up with trepidation. It couldn't be... right? Gilgamesh couldn't fall to Angra Mainyu. In all of the timelines Rin had covered, that guy managed to survive being engulfed by the curses.

And yet... the King of Heroes was standing there.

His golden armor was torn and cracked, like it had weathered countless attacks. His spiky blonde hair had fallen, turning into limp bangs. And though the Gate of Babylon was open behind him, the weapons Shirou could see were battered, damaged.

A state that Shirou knew would be unacceptable for such a proud individual like the Golden Hero King.

Slow laughter resounded as Shirou looked at Gilgamesh, made all the more eerie by how similar the voice was to his own.

Angra Mainyu pressed his fingers together and smirked. "Surprised? Gilgamesh, the King of Heroes... Alaya and Gaia had pinned their hopes on him. A shame that his current incarnation was granted by 'All the Evil in this World', isn't it?"

A mockery- no, a desecration.

The once prideful King was nothing more than a puppet.

...He must have lost. It was inconceivable.

Sure, that guy had lost in plenty of other timelines, but that had always been because he underestimated his opponent. If Alaya and Gaia had appealed to him to end Angra Mainyu, Gilgamesh wouldn't have done that. At least, not to the extent that he would lose.

But lose he had.

The one standing in front of Shirou, barring the path to Angra Mainyu, was nothing more than a body kept alive by Angra Mainyu's Authority. The prideful light in his eyes were gone, and Gilgamesh no longer existed on this plane of existence.

"Now, Shirou." Angra Mainyu smiled, a twisted expression that Shirou couldn't imagine imitating, despite their similar appearances. "I can't have you interfering so... would you please die for me?"

The body of Gilgamesh mechanically raised its hand, the countless Noble Phantasms in his Gate primed to fire.

Shirou tensed, projecting a steel sword and reinforcing it to absolute levels. There wasn't enough time for anything better, but it would do.

...On second thought, he was kinda regretting not making more Noble Phantasms when he had the chance.

Wait. He had Excaliber, didn't he?

...It didn't feel right to use it just yet, but he didn't have a choice.

But the decision was taken out of his hands when Gilgamesh suddenly spun around and unleashed his Noble Phantasms on Angra Mainyu.

""What-!?""

For once, a shared moment between Shirou and Angra Mainyu.

Both were stunned by the action, Shirou because he could've sworn there was nothing left in Gilgamesh and Angra Mainyu because- well he was probably thinking the same thing.

Of course, for the latter that meant taking a volley of Broken Phantasms to the face.

Explosions rocked the very foundations of the antechamber and Shirou struggled to stay on his feet.

Gilgamesh, on the other hand, was standing ram rock amidst the chaos, arms crossed and glaring at where the rubble had buried Angra Mainyu.

"Tch. Did you think that you could treat me like some puppet?"

The King scoffed and turned towards Shirou.

For a moment, Shirou didn't know what to do as he was faced with the piercing gaze of the King of Heroes.

It didn't seem like he was against him. In fact, it seemed like Gilgamesh was actually on his side, considering what he did to Angra Mainyu. But that could just be another of his whims, judging from his volatile nature. Would he decide to unleash his wrath on Shirou?

"...You were foolish, boy."

Shirou blinked. Did Gilgamesh just... insult him?

"But perhaps a Fool is what we need to save this World and enlighten it."

Before Shirou could think more on it, Gilgamesh had already walked past him, fading as he left. "The 'Truth' is in your hands, Maker. Think carefully on how you will use it."

An explosion of shadows brought Shirou's attention back to Angra Mainyu.

His suit and pants had been torn apart by Gilgamesh's barrage, but other than that Angra Mainyu was unharmed.

Crimson markings spiraled across Angra Mainyu's body, pulsating with eerie violet light. "That arrogant fool... fine. It seems that I'll have to take matters into my own hands."

A blade of pulsating darkness. No, not a blade, but curses bound in the shape of a blade to create the embodiment of his powers. A weapon that would corrode everything it touched with a blight that sapped at the soul until it was nothing more than oblivion.

"Now Shirou. Would you kindly die for me?"

And then Angra Mainyu charged, time and space distorting with every step he took.

A clock ticked, echoing loud in the empty halls.

Ayako sighed and slumped against her chair.

It had been an hour now since Shirou and Rin left. Right now, they were probably fighting for their lives... no, fighting for the world.

And it had been an hour since she had been stuck with that annoying guy in blue spandex armor that left absolutely nothing to the imagination.

"Lancer. Would you mind not standing so close to me?"

The man sighed and raised his hands up in the air. "Am I bothering you that much, lady? You've already got me up against the wall here."

Lancer's words were as literal as they were metaphorical.

Unable to stand the man's presence, Ayako had repeatedly asked him to step back, leading them to their current positions.

They were in Rin's library, what she assured was the most fortified position in her manor, and Ayako had taken a seat in the corner of the room by a table far from the door. Lancer, on the other hand, was standing in the opposite side of the room, Gae Bolg resting along his shoulder as he leaned against the wall.

"It's not like I'll hurt you or anything, you know? Your boyfriend and my new scary Master made it pretty clear what would happen if you even got a scratch."

Ayako slammed her hand against the tabletop. "For the tenth time, Shirou's not my boyfriend!"

"Sure, lady. Whatever you say..."

The words were nonchalant, but the smirk on his face showed Lancer's true intent.

Ayako groaned and opened up one of the books on the table, intending to bury herself behind it. At least it'd be better than having to watch Lancer and his... Gae Bolg, or whatever he wanted to call it.

Just thinking about that sent a shiver of revulsion up her spine.

Yeah, maybe some obscure occult textbooks would help her erase that obscene imagery.

For a while, it was blissfully silent. It seemed that Lancer had finally given up on trying to talk to her.

Ayako was just about to relax, when the very air seemed to freeze, and she felt the chill of imminent doom.

"So you finally got tired of waiting, 'Death Gun'?"

The air shimmered and a cloaked figure with a futuristic skull mask appeared in the center of the room.

Ayako froze as she saw the gun he was holding, the barrel of which was lined up perfectly with her heart.

"You know..." Lancer straightened and spun his spear. "You'll disappear before you get a chance to shoot."

The chill in the air only got colder as Lancer lowered his stance, his crimson spear pointed towards Death Gun.

The distance between them all was less than ten meters. A distance that meant nothing to the two instruments of absolute death.

The question here was which Servant would act first.

Ayako held her breath, inwardly cursing her uselessness in the situation. If only she were still reinforced, she could do something. But she wasn't, so all she could do was wait and hope that Lancer wasn't bluffing.

After a few tense seconds, Death Gun lowered his gun. "...Pointless. Kirito isn't even here."

"Oho?"

Lancer, on the other hand, remained in his lowered stance. "...Wait, you aren't the same guy as before."

Death Gun turned his pistol on Lancer. "...Indeed. But it doesn't matter. I will disappear in a few moments. So before then... I'll enjoy myself!"

He spun towards Ayako, and started to pull the trigger.

"Gae-"

The moment Lancer saw him move, he called the name of his Noble Phantasm.

But then Death Gun acted unexpectedly.

Mid-spin, he stomped his foot and then lurched towards Lancer at a blinding speed. A blade was in his free hand, one that seemed to be an estoc made of strange metal.

Still, Lancer didn't hesitate.

"-Bolg!"

The lance that assured death pierced Death Gun's heart, stopping him in his tracks.

...Had he been desperate? Craving for excitement so much that he made an attack sure to fail rather than kill Ayako?

Whatever Death Gun was thinking, it didn't matter as the assassin faded into blue shards and disappeared from this world.

"Idiot."

Lancer shook his head and leaned against his spear. "Well, lady. It looks like my job's done. There shouldn't be any other Servants out there to worry about now."

Ayako sighed and slumped into her seat. That had been too close. Way too close.

But it looked like she'd still be here when Shirou returned.

She closed her eyes and leaned back, thinking on the one she loved. "Come back safe, Shirou."

-Pain. A burning sensation in her chest, just over her heart, one that was quickly fading to an ominous chill.

Ayako opened her eyes to see Lancer's shocked expression, standing over her with his spear.

"You...?"

Lancer stepped back, shaking his head. "No... NO! Dammit! Angra Mainyu, you bastard!"

Ayako let out a raspy breath and then coughed.

...Wet. She could taste the copper in her mouth.

Lancer pulled out Gae Bolg and frantically spelled out symbols in the air. "Dammit, dammit, dammit!"

Ah. Sorry, Shirou. Looks like I was useless after all...

The last sight Ayako had was Lancer holding some sort of prism to her chest.

And then it was dark.

Kirito locked blades with KIRITO, Elucidator clashing with the shadowy sword that guy wielded.

Kirito glared at his copy. "Why are you helping him? Don't you know that Angra Mainyu's going to destroy the world? Even ours?!"

KIRITO leapt back, opening the space between them.

Snowing. Newly fallen white covered the frantic signs of their struggle, already starting to erase it from the world.

"...It doesn't matter."

Letting out that muttered response, KIRITO raised his blade, eyes filled with fury. "All that matters is that you pay for your betrayal!"

"Tch!"

Kirito easily blocked his copy's attack. Unlike last time, there seemed to be no degradation of his skills here. It looked like that guy wanted to go all out and beat him at his best.

That was fine with him. Kirito had a lot to vent on him too.

"Again with that?! Why can't you move on! Sachi wouldn't want you-"

"DON'T SAY HER NAME!"

A heavy slash. It actually knocked Kirito back a few steps, but he quickly recovered and countered with one of his own.

"What's WRONG with you?!"

Kirito felt like there was more going on here than just betraying Sachi's memory. If that guy really was him, but a him that took a different route that day... even then, he wouldn't be acting like this.

A difference. More than just choosing to live rather than die by attacking the bosses alone.

"Don't you remember? You KILLED them!"

KIRITO lashed out and knocked Kirito's sword wide, then stepped in to run his heart through.

He missed.

Kirito spun with the attack and drew his other sword, using it to parry the blow.

Upon seeing that blade, KIRITO froze.

"That sword... Asuna's...?"

Kirito stepped back, settling into his combat stance. "Yeah, Asuna's..."

He trailed off when he saw the expression on KIRITO's face. Unlike the blatant rage before, all he could see was guilt and remorse.

And then it clicked.

"You..."

Betrayal. "Killing them".

There was only one way that Kirito could imagine leading to the one in front of him.

If Asuna had died... No, if he had actually killed her...

"...You cut them down."

There was no emotion in Kirito's words. Cold, like the snow around them. "You actually killed her, didn't you?"

Those words snapped KIRITO out of his daze, and the other swordsman glared at Kirito. "Shut up! SHUT UP!"

He charged again, that shadowy blade seeking Kirito's heart.

"I pity you..."

Kirito raised Lambent Light, the air seeming to shimmer as he did so. "But it's time that you finally wake up from that nightmare."

KIRITO lunged, but missed.

...It wasn't that Kirito had avoided it, but that KIRITO had been aiming towards someone else.

A young woman with auburn hair, dressed in red and white, standing at Kirito's side.

"SHUT UP!"

Mad. KIRITO had gone crazy upon seeing her, the one he had betrayed, the one who had tried to help him, only to be killed by his hands.

"Asuna."

-It wasn't really her. Kirito knew it. The one he loved across all worlds was still safe and sound back where he came from.

But this sword carried her heart, embodied the bond they had shared, the one strong enough to defy a 'God' and end a world.

"I'll be home soon."

A promise that couldn't be heard, but the warmth in her sword was reassuring.

He turned towards KIRITO, the 'him' that had gone mad with grief, who should have died long ago but was denied death because of his skill.

KIRITO roared and swung his blade, fighting someone only he could see.

"I said SHUT UP!"

Kirito sighed and walked up to him.

KIRITO never even noticed, still ranting and attacking invisible foes.

"...Good bye, 'me'. Rest in peace at last."

Lambent Light pierced KIRITO's heart from behind.

He stilled, as if surprised by the attack, and then shattered into a billion shards of light.

"...A bit anticlimactic, but I guess life isn't like games, is it?"

Kirito shook his head and looked around. "Now how do I get out of here...?"

"What a pity. I thought that you would last longer than that, Kirito. Of course, it wasn't you, but I thought him close enough to be a better match than that. But I suppose your fluctlight can't be copied so easily, can it?"

Kirito spun towards the voice, swords already settled into the beginning stance for 'The Eclipse'.

"Quinella... I should've known after Shirou told me about Lizeris."

The administrator that shared Lizeris's Authority- no, she could be said to be the one who usurped it. A woman who lived for centuries by replacing her body with another and who mastered all the 'Magic' of that World...

...Her body didn't match her voice. The one there was Sachi at first, but then her form shifted, back into the one Kirito remembered.

Otherworldly beauty, elegant silver hair, and metallic eyes that he'd never forget.

She gave him a slight smile and held out her hand. "Shall we finish our last dance?"

Shirou blocked Angra Mainyu's latest attack with a simple steel sword.

He would have preferred Excaliber, but Noble Phantasms were worthless in this fight.

The black sword Angra Mainyu held was an embodiment of his curse, an 'Anti-soul' weapon that eroded and destroyed everything it came in contact with to assimilate and add to Angra Mainyu's power.

Since Noble Phantasms actually possessed a 'soul' of sorts, having been in existence for so long and embodying the imagination of Humanity, they were especially vulnerable to what Angra Mainyu wielded.

But a plain steel sword reinforced to the same levels didn't have that problem.

Sure, it would still chip and tear as it met the ominous black blade, but it wouldn't add to Angra Mainyu's strength when it did.

Besides...

"Stay still!"

...Angra Mainyu was a terrible swordsman.

Shirou easily dodged the haphazard strike and countered with one of his own.

Azure light cloaked his blade as he started 'Vertical Square'.

Time and space screeched as Angra Mainyu used his Authority to get out of harm's way.

Shirou straightened, and the light faded from his blade.

Angra Mainyu growled. "Why can't I hit you?!"

"You might have copied my Magic..."

Shirou held his blade loose to the side, loading an attack to finish this farce of a fight.

"You might have copied my appearance..."

Infinity Moment... yes. That would work.

"You might have even copied my sword. But Angra Mainyu."

Shirou stepped forward.

"A Fake like you will never match me!"

Shirou's original technique executed, bending the space around Angra Mainyu, leaving no room to escape. Reality itself was torn apart as he imposed an infinite number of attack in a single moment, a sure death of steel.

But-

"Fine."

-Shirou's technique that could not fail... the attack that could kill even Berserker in a single blow.

It was stopped.

An ominous sight. All of the attacks that were supposed to end Angra Mainyu were halted in their tracks, leaving the man standing it what appeared to be a dome of steel and glowing light.

"If I can't match you... I'll surpass you."

Shadows, appearing from nowhere. It flowed around Angra Mainyu, bending and folding as it changed his form.

A moment of dread.

Shirou could feel the world changing, tearing apart.

As if to reinforce that feeling, a void appeared behind Angra Mainyu, one that consumed the light from Shirou's attacks.

And then the shadows parted, revealing Angra Mainyu's new form.

...The devil. That was the only way to describe him. Through the use of his Authority, through his incarnation from the Synthesis Ritual, through the connection to the Holy Grail...

Angra Mainyu had become the literal embodiment of evil.

"Now..."

A silky voice, one that could turn a lesser person's mind with just a word.

"I will show you despair, Emiya Shirou."

He waved his hand, and their surroundings shifted.

"Watch as I destroy all you hold dear. By the time I have finished..."

Angra Mainyu grinned. "You will regret not dying when I asked you to."

The sight of the Greater Grail.

Rin and the others had made it, defeating countless hordes of monsters along the way. They had even managed to close the gate...

But it was pointless in the end.

Shirou was frozen, unable to so much as breathe.

He was forced to watch her end.

Makiri Zolgen. Rider.

They were against Angra Mainyu... but the former had forgotten his existence was borne from the same cradle as All Evil.

It was a simple matter to take control of the man's body and command Rider to kill Rin.

Archer was fast. Enough to start projecting Rho Aius in anticipation Rider's Noble Phantasm.

But it wasn't Bellerophon she used.

Cybele, the Mystic Eyes of Petrification.

Ilya, Rin, and Archer were looking upon her when it activated.

Though none of them were instantly petrified, it slowed them enough for Rider to kill Rin.

The Tohsaka Manor.

At the library where Ayako was supposed to be safe.

Lancer was a Servant summoned by the Grail. Kirito and Archer were excluded from Angra Mainyu's manipulations due to various complications in their summoning, but Lancer was not.

The moment that Ayako thought it was safe, where the danger was eliminated, the one who was protecting her served to be her end.

A field of freshly fallen snow, amidst pine trees.

Kirito faced off against a woman with startling silver hair and eyes.

A fierce battle, one where Kirito could match his opponent despite lacking magic.

...But it was in a terrain that was crafted by Angra Mainyu.

All it took was a single second, one where Angra Mainyu froze Kirito's sense of time.

The Black Swordsman was mortally wounded by a spear of ice.

He managed to slay his opponent with his next attack, but then fell and shattered into a thousand lights.

"You have failed them, Shirou."

Angra Mainyu stepped towards him, blade raised. "But worry not. You'll join them soon enough."

Shirou slumped to his knees.

...Was that it? Meaningless? After all he did, after all he went through, after swearing to not let another person die...

And it was gone, just like that?

"Farewell, Emiya Shirou. This is my win."

The black blade fell, the executioner's slash that would end Emiya Shirou.

Shirou grabbed it with his bare hands.

He could feel the curses reaching out to erase him, feel something pulling at his soul, trying to destroy it.

All the Evil in this World met unyielding steel.

"What-? Damn you! If that's not enough to kill you, then-!"

Shirou clenched his hand and the sword shattered.

Surprise was clear on Angra Mainyu's face.

Irrelevant.

...This was it.

Angra Mainyu had retreated to the other side of the room, reaching out to the void behind him.

A weapon of sheer destruction, the 'void' forged into a towering blade. Angra Mainyu pulled it out and raised it.

"That's it. If I can't kill you, I'll just end it all!"

The final decision.

Sakura was dead. Rin was dead. Ayako was dead. Kirito had faded away and returned back to where he came from.

Shirou was alone.

The enemy was before him.

If he had nothing else in this world, then he would...

1. Accept his duty

2. Save them

3. Live on

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