The first task was deciding what had to be defended. The answer was “Ritsuka and the Summoning Circle.” While the Summoning Circle could be remade, it would take time and the destruction of the surroundings could make reforming the circle a big hassle. So Ritsuka asked Marie to relocate the gazebo to cover the circle. Ritsuka then stationed himself in the gazebo, with Marie and Mozart, while the other three took up position to fight on the front line. Mash had the center, Altoria the right flank, and Jeanne the left flank.
The set up was a bit hurried considering the limited time they had to react to an approaching Servant… the other Servant moved slowly, however, taking their time in approaching the camp. The tension of the waiting warriors was as thick as a textbook. The only one disregarding the atmosphere was Mozart, who sat in the gazebo and sipped his tea.
“Would you at least pretend that you care about what’s happening right in front of you,” asked Marie.
“I play music, not pretend,” answered Mozart listlessly. Then said, “Our uninvited guest should be entering the clearing in just a moment.”
The rustling of bushes preceded the arrival of the Servant. Her entry into the clearing with the light of the moon and the prepared campfire was slow, controlled, and potentially elegant. She was clothed in white and red with a bit of skin showing through a ridiculously deep cleavage cut in her garments, and had ribbons in her long hair. She carried a large crucifix topped staff that she used like it was a walking stick. She also had a smile that seemed… sad.
“Hello, everybody,” said the woman politely in English. “What a lonely night.”
“Who are you,” demanded Jeanne of the mystery woman who was just barely taller than herself.
“Who,” asked the woman back, as though it was a question requiring careful thought. Ritsuka had finished looking at her, in the way he’d learned his sight had been impacted by becoming a Master. The movement of the magical energy in her body was similar to Medusa and Marie’s. She was most likely a Rider. But that wild fluctuation also indicated Madness Enhancement. Which made her disjointed response less confusing.
“Let’s see, I wonder who I am. I forced myself to be a righteous saint, but in this world I’m a slave to a broken one. Yes… Thanks to her, my reason has left and I’ve gone mad. I am doing everything I can to hold myself back. What a mess this is. So while I appreciate your hopes of saving this land, I cannot join you. After all, you wouldn’t want to keep a Servant around who’ll stab you from behind at every opportunity you present me, do you?”
The mysterious Rider’s eyes seemed both sorrowful and wild at the same time, as though she was actually looking forward to being given the chance of assassination while dreading being given the opportunity. Jeanne seemed to want to cut to the point, as she demanded, “Then why did you come here?”
The Berserk Rider seemed to hug the crucifix in her arms as she said, “My task was to observe you, but my waning reason whispers to me. That I should test you. You who faces the Dragon Witch. She who is disaster incarnate, riding on the ‘ultimate dragon.’ If you cannot surpass me, you will never defeat her.”
The Rider slammed the butt end of her staff into the ground to punctuate her words as a wild desire for battle rose inside her and magical power visibly swirled about her.
“Defeat me,” she called. “Plunge your blade into my heart without hesitation. My True Name is Martha. Now come to me,”
Iron Dragon Tarasque!
The Rider’s Noble Phantasm, her mount, appeared instantly under her feet as the swirling power plunged into the earth. The hard soil colored shell of a great beast rose up from beneath her as though it had grown from the ground without causing any destruction of the surroundings. The beast was the size of a house, with a savage version of a turtle shell about its body and muscular limbs with taloned ends coming out of four holes, a large aquatic tail from the fifth, with a grizzled and white haired dragon head coming out of the sixth. The emergence of the Rider’s mount, a dragon itself, was swift, powerful, and held a grace like flowing water. Rider Martha swayed lightly on the great turtle dragon’s back, completely at home atop her loyal beast.
“Saint Marth,” called out Jeanne questioningly. “The Saint who defeated a dragon with nothing but prayers!?”
“That means she is a Dragon Rider,” called out Altoria as a warning.
“He looks like Gamera’s grandfather,” said Ritsuka, his knuckles white from having just seen something more badass than any CG cutscene he’d seen in his life and finding that he was gonna have to beat it in a fight.
“Let us see if you are capable of slaying me,” called out Saint Martha, in equal parts desperation and hope while her mount roared loud enough to make the trees in the area shiver. Ritsuka shivered too, even as his brain wildly identified and parsed what he was seeing, and the potential weakness it held.
“Marie,” said Ritsuka without looking away from the battle. “Try and get Alter on top of that thing. Mash! Jeanne! Shut down that thing’s movements! You don’t have to win, but keep it from running wild!”
The Servants gave their replies, each one different from the other, and started moving. Terasque bucked forward like the surge of a crocodile, with Mash meeting the charge with her shield. The ground was torn up behind her like a folding fan as Jeanne moved around Mash’s side to bring her pole down to brain the great dragon head. The creature moved it’s head to catch the flagpole on it’s great outward curled horns to buck the pole away, which allowed Jeanne to pirouette in place and deal a horizontal sweeping strike to the front right shin of the dragon, causing it to howl not unlike a human would on taking a similar injury.
During this initial rush a crystal mare appeared under Altoria’s feet, instantly putting her into the rider’s seat and carrying her forward. Altoria had one hand on the reins, apparently helping to guide Marie’s remote piloting, with her cursed holy sword in her left hand. The glass mare leapt, kicked against a tree while leaving hoofprints behind, and with a full corkscrew turn, landed on top of the dragon’s wide back for Altoria to deliver a swift fatal blow to the defenseless Rider on top.
That swift blow was caught on the plate mail bracer Martha had as the Rider delivered a fierce left straight into the head of the horse, shattering it and causing the rest of the mount to break down and dissolve away into nothing.
That was the Madness Enhancement, right, thought Ritsuka to himself. A Saint known for powerful prayers wasn’t the kind of person who would conquer the world with her left, right?
Jeanne attempted to stab the flanged and pointed tip of her flagpole into the dragon’s joint in it’s knee. Her penetrating strike was only deflected away by the tough dragon scales, which were at a whole other level than those of a mere wyvern. Terasque responded by quickly shifting to the side to bodyslam Jeanne with the edge of the turtle shell, flinging the short blonde away with the force. Mash interceded and prevented the dragon from moving further with a backhanded blow into the creature’s nose to rile it up and keep its attention on her. The wild buck of the counterblow threw Altoria off balance on the dragon’s back even though she had the Riding skill, while Martha was completely at home on the swaying battlefield. Martha stepped forward and used her divine staff like a pole weapon, thrusting with the point of the cross and sweeping with the other points of the crucifix like the French soldiers used their halberds. Altoria was forced to back step to dodge those swings after her sword’s guard had been knocked away.
Ritsuka had thought it would be a fast checkmate if Altoria could engage the Rider directly, but Ritsuka had definitely underestimated his opponent. She was a Dragon Rider in more than name, it seemed.
Suddenly Ritsuka picked up a swift movement of magical energy inside Terasque as it gathered.
“Breath weapon,” called Ritsuka aloud. “Full defense!”
Just as he’d discussed with the team beforehand; with that short order, Jeanne moved behind Mash’s shield and Marie created a barrier to protect the gazebo. A glass horse ran by Ritsuka’s field of vision causing interlocked pillars of crystal to appear from the ground in its wake at a slight angle to form a protective fence. The release of the built up magical energy took the form of fire. A great blast of ferocious fire swept over the entire area, and was in turn swept upwards and over the three who were sheltering inside the gazebo. Ritsuka and Marie crouched down instinctively. Mozart had never stood up from enjoying his tea in the first place.
As the flame burst ended, Ritsuka turned towards Mozart and asked, “Would you like to help out a little?”
“I don’t mind at all,” answered Mozart comfortably. “But what is it that you think I can do right now?”
After a mentally blank second, Ritsuka turned towards Marie, who looked back at him in turn. Marie lightly shrugged her shoulders. Ritsuka instantly gave up on using Mozart effectively.
[Our readings are showing a large hot spot! The trees have caught fire!]
“Oh, no,” cried Marie as she stood bolt upright. “The poor animals!”
Ritsuka’s brain instantly registered the danger that not only the animals faced, but they themselves. He didn’t know if Servants needed to breathe, but he knew that he did. And smoke inhalation was probably not fun. Turning towards the ignited forest that was already crackling loudly and fully ablaze. The options churned in Ritsuka’s head. Water. Woodlands clearing. Smother-
Before the thought fully formed, Ritsuka said, “Marie, construct something to smother the flames! Starve the fire!”
“Oh, like a candle snuff,” asked Marie, hitting the flat of her tiny fist into the palm of her other hand. Then she considered, “But something like that is so uncute. Oh, how about this?”
With a tight playful turn of her body as though she were dancing, a set of three horses were created and began to gallop towards the fires that seemed like they were growing in ferocity by the second. They ran a lap around the most dangerous spots and a transparent wall of glass formed from the ground up to create a dome around each of the fires. At the top of the domes an ornate handle of horses and roses was formed. The end result was a smothering dome like those used in fancy restaurants to cover and insulate dishes before they could be served.
“I know we just ate, but seeing those puts me in the mood to dine,” murmured Marie with a finger to her chin. Mozart nodded vehemently. And Ritsuka felt a sharp pull from his connection to Jeanne. Something had gone decidedly wrong.
“Marie, clear away the barricade!”
“Oh, yes, of course,” shouted the petite girl as she waved a hand. The barrier formed to protect them from the fiery breath had been half melted and scorched carbon black. It was little more than a half intact wall by that time and it fell apart quickly. What showed itself on the other side was a very bad situation.
The great turtle dragon has succeeded in somehow pinning Jeanne under one of its massive legs, and kept shifting its weight from one side to the other to pound on the girl without releasing enough pressure that she could slip away. Mash was pounding and straining against the side of the shell, trying to keep as much of the creature’s weight off Jeanne as she could. As Ritsuka’s eyes flicked up to Altoria to see if he could send her down to help Jeanne, he saw that she was in a weapon lock with Martha, both of them pressing the other down. Then Martha savagely headbutted Altoria, causing the Saber to falter, back step, and slightly stumble as the blow was timed along with the dragon’s movement to stomp Jeanne once again. Martha used that opening to approach Altoria with the crunched in posture of a Muay Thai fighter and launch a succession of short punches that dented Altoria’s armor, followed by a scything kick that threw Altoria to the surface of the turtle shell. Altoria was able to roll away fast enough to avoid a pickaxe like strike from the crucifix on Martha’s staff.
Shit! Madness Enhancement is nuts!
Altoria was in need of help as well, meaning the best course was to help everyone on the battlefield at the same time if possible. And Ritsuka had to hurry, if he put it in game terms it felt like Jeanne had only half of her life force remaining, he had to move before her HP hit zero. The best move would be to sweep away all the advantages by-
“Marie, make a big sturdy block under that thing’s foot so Jeanne can get out!”
[Altoria, get ready to jump and counterattack. You’ll know when!]
A glass stallion appeared in front of the gazebo and made a mighty leap, landing with a stomp next to the trapped Jeanne with a rebounding leap away. As the horse departed, a squat pillar with a rose relief around the edges rose up from the ground to meet the underside of the great turtle shell, lifting Terasque’s foot from Jeanne’s body. Ritsuka shouted, “Lever and fulcrum, Jeanne! Flip that thing!”
Jeanne rolled out from under the turtle, shouted, “Oui, Master,” and amidst the dust cloud of her movement, Jeanne leveraged her flagpole into a gap between the glass pillar and the shell of Terasque. Ritsuka was starting to get the hang of having his Od interact with the links he had with the Servants and sent a jet of his own magical power over to strengthen Jeanne, who gave a shout of determined effort as she pushed down on the flagpole.
“Mash, too,” shouted Ritsuka as the turtle dragon began to lift from the ground.
“Yes, Master,” shouted Mash as she uppercutted her shield into the shell. The two dainty girls’ combined strength caused the turtle to be upended on one side.
“Again,” shouted Ritsuka now that there was room for people to go under the dragon.
“Marie, too,” shouted the girl happily from Ritsuka’s side. Half a dozen horses appeared charging through the forest, gaining momentum as their impact with the underside of the turtle shell was timed with Jeanne’s powerful side-kick that showed a massive amount of leg through the slit in her dress and Mash’s full power shield bodyslam. As the turtle had been moving sideways, Altoria had jumped off the back of the creature, but not before she’d put as much time into distracting the Rider as she could.
The final impact of a dozen horses and two Servants in near unison caused Terasque to lose contact with the ground as it flipped over, throwing its Rider up into the air. While the Berserk Rider Martha was free floating, Altoria launched herself from the tree she’d used as a brace while using her Mana Burst. The girl blurred as she launched like a missile to impale the Rider dead center of her bust, through her chest, and carried her through the air until they landed in the center of the clearing with Martha pinned to the ground like a displayed butterfly. The impact of Altoria’s landing intermingled with the crushing thud of Terasque’s flip, as trees and earth gave way before it’s massive bulk. The great dragon Terasque moaned pitifully, and it’s size began to shrink as all fight seemed to go out of it; as a blood pool began to accumulate under the fallen Saint Martha.
“It’s over,” said Altoria. She heavily stood up from the kneeling position she landed in while leaving the sword trapped in flesh and earth. Ritsuka moved over to the defeated Saint Martha. Even from a distance he could see her life force dwindling, and the interfering wavelength of the Madness Enhancement was dissipating.
“Yes… that’s enough,” said the fallen saint, gasping out the words.
“I take it we passed your test,” asked Altoria bluntly.
“Is there anything we can do for you,” asked Ritsuka as he approached.
“Passed? Yes, of course… And no, this is fine. It’s fine this way,” muttered Martha as a look of relief passed over her face, even as a trickle of blood slid down her cheek from her mouth. “Before I depart, I must… tell you. You’ll never beat the dragon… controlled by the Dragon Witch… There’s only one way… to surpass that kind of dragon… Go to Lyon…”
Martha had a pained look wash over her features.
“The city once known as Lyon… It won’t be a saint who defeats the dragon… Nor a princess or queen… Ever since ancient times… only a Dragon Slayer was… capable of killing a dragon.”
Martha weakly tilted her head over to where her mount lay overturned. All the fight had left the creature that had shrunk to the size of a car, and all the cruelty had left it’s grumpy but softened features.
“Terasque, I’m sorry… Next time, I hope I’ll be summoned properly.”
Martha gave one last slight exhalation as her eyes lost all focus, and she began to dissipate into golden motes of light. Ritsuka found himself slowly closing his eyes to force the teardrop he’d accumulated out, and wiped it away with the cuff of his coat. As Ritsuka was finding his emotional center again, he heard Altoria say, “I told you. My path is one of blood.”
Ritsuka looked at the small plate armored back that wouldn’t turn to look at him. And said without any hesitation, “You’re not walking it alone.”
Altoria stood silently for a few seconds, turned to pull her sword from the ground, giving Ritsuka the chance to see the bruises that covered her face from the previous fight. Altoria walked past Ritsuka towards the camp saying, “I shall rest for now.”
The camp itself had been left untouched by the flames, so there was a tent waiting for Altoria to seal herself inside of. As the girl walked, Jeanne, one arm crossed under her chest and holding the other one in a self-comforting gesture, said, “Even Saint Martha couldn’t resist her…”
“She’d undergone Madness Enhancement, in addition to being a Summoned Servant,” said Mash delicately. “Perhaps it couldn’t have been helped. Normally it would have been impossible to even talk to her. The only reason we were able to communicate was because of her incredible self-control.”
In this spirit of respectful mourning, Mozart strode up and said, “Anyway, thanks to her, we know where we’re going. We should hurry, right? Let’s get going to Lyon.”
“Tomorrow,” said Ritsuka, his eyes following the path Altoria took. “I think we all need some rest after tonight. Except Mozart; you’re standing watch.”
“I suppose it’s deserved, since I didn’t fight. Alright, I shall enjoy the sound of nature at night. Even if the view is not very spectacular,” said the man as he indicated the burnt out trees that had once been on fire.
The traveling companions departed to the tents, with Moodmaker Marie saying, “I’m getting excited. I wonder what, and who, waits for us in Lyon!”