His mouth was filled with the sweet, metallic taste of blood.
Although he was not severely wounded, some healing was certainly required. This was beyond his body’s natural regeneration.
The homunculus, for whom ‘life’ had once meant floating inside a prana provision tank, now possessed his own name – Sieg – and had become a unique existence, neither human nor homunculus nor Heroic Spirit.
He glanced at his left palm. Normally, a Command Spell once used would become a faint bruise and disappear. However, that was not the case here; his Command Spells became somewhat indistinct, but they were still very much present. In fact, a blackish mark was present where the Command Spell had been – an aftereffect of its usage, Sieg assumed.
His body felt strangely heavy. Just as he began to stretch and turn his neck and arms, he found Rider glaring at him darkly.
“Isn’t there something you should to be saying to me…?”
Sieg did not even need to think about his reply.
“Yes. Yes, you are. What do you think I worked so hard for?!”
Rider wrapped both hands around Sieg’s shoulders and shook the homunculus back and forth, on the verge of tears.
“Mordred ran you through! You were dead! And then you were alive again! And then you turned into a Servant, but now you’re back! What is going on here?!”
“I… don’t really know myself, actually. How did I come back to life?”
“And how does asking me help? You know I’m not smart enough to know things like that! Stupid! Stupid! Aaaagh!”
Rider shouted and shouted, then suddenly butted Sieg in the chest with his head. Facing towards the ground, Rider murmured.
“Thank goodness you’re still alive… but not again, do you understand? Don’t do what you just did, ever again. All right?”
Rider looked up at Sieg with blurred eyes. Sieg coolly replied.
“I can’t promise that.”
Rider blinked several times before puffing up his cheeks.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?! Normal people would say ‘yes’ to that! They say ‘sorry’ and ‘I won’t do that again’ and they cry and they realize their mistake and I’ll be the mature one who forgives them and pets them on the head!”
“I came back precisely so I can do things like that again… I really want to save them, Rider… all my brothers and sisters. I want to pay them back for the compassion they showed me then.”
“I know that it’s something beyond me. Like you said… I should have gone on living without ever turning back. My life would have been happier that way.”
However, he could not. He could not live on pretending they never existed. Rider listened to Sieg’s appeal and sighed theatrically.
“Oh, you… you… you’re just… just so…”
Scratching and tearing at his own hair, Rider suddenly leapt into the air. Sieg prepared himself, thinking that he must be furious – but when Rider stopped, he turned to Sieg with a face full of joy and zest.
“…just so brilliant! I knew… I knew this is who you are! Even though no one would judge you for leaving all this behind – you would still challenge yourself! Thanks to you, I’ve made up my mind as well – I can say for sure now that they need to be saved! We’ll save them all from that foul, dreadful place!”
“And… you’re all right with that?”
“Hm? With what?”
“What I mean is… this doesn’t seem like something that the other Servants will just allow at a time like this.”
“Oh, is that it? We’ll consider that when it happens! Now, let’s go!”
Rider pulled forcefully on Sieg’s arm as they headed towards the crumbling Fortress of Millennia. But they stopped before long – for before them stood a single magus.
“Well, that didn’t take long. I guess it’s only natural when she was watching from the castle the whole time.”
Rider scratched his head with a look of guilt. Opposing them was a beauty whose sharp-framed glasses emphasizing her icy hostility – Celenike Icecolle Yggdmillennia.
She must be furious, Sieg thought. He had heard Rider complain before about her flagrant and twisted delusions towards him.
Celenike was smiling at the Servant who betrayed her expectations, looking entranced as she stared at the two with arms folded.
“Ugh… I think I prefer her angry…”
Rider whispered. Sieg nodded in agreement.
Celenike was not angered. If anything, she was so far beyond rage that she was completely frozen in icy fury. Her emotions were dissolved, her mind turning to pure logic. However, the direction of her thoughts were the same: she would revenge herself a hundred times and a thousands time for any slight or shame. All misgivings and doubts were torn apart as she pursued that goal – even those that served to protect hers and her allies’ interests.
From the moment that she saw Rider ignoring her orders to retreat in order to protect the homunculus, Celenike no longer saw the Great Holy Grail War or anything else. Her logical mind simply prepared the most painful end imaginable for Rider.
Rider must have already considered his own death at this point; using a Command Spell to force his suicide would not cause grief in the knight with endless optimism. Violating his body would be no different; making her mark on every inch of his body would only bring him physical suffering and little more.
But there was one – just one thing that would bring despair to Astolfo.
“Hey, Rider… tell me your true name.”
Celenike murmured sweetly. Rider tilted his head at the sudden and arbitrary question as he answered.
“Um, Astolfo, one of the Twelve Peers of Charlemagne.”
“Wrong, Rider. You see, you are only a Servant… a page torn from the book of the Heroic Spirit Astolfo. In a way, you are only the result of faulty reproduction. However much you may recall from your past life – whatever powers you borrow from the past – Astolfo has long disappeared from this world.”
Rider nodded, accepting that there was some truth in that. Her words were disparaging – but Rider was never one to care about the criticisms of others.
“And? So what if I’m just a reproduction?”
“Do you understand? I respect the Heroic Spirit Astolfo. After all, he was a paladin and a hero who left his name in history. But, Rider… do you think I respect a mere copy like you?”
“Well, begging your pardon, Master, but I don’t think you’ve paid me any respect at all – whether I’m a Heroic Spirit or wraith or what have you.”
“Perhaps. But you understand, don’t you? You are not ‘Astolfo’ to me. You are just the most wonderful toy I brought to this world.”
Rider quickly brought his lance to bear against Celenike and her thin, cruel smile. It was not an act one ought to take against one’s own Master, but somewhere in Rider’s mind, an alarm bell was ringing.
“You have to get out of here, Sieg.”
Although shocked by Rider’s sudden outburst, Sieg began to back away in retreat. However, Celenike threw out her left arm immediately.
“The fourth of the Black orders you with a Command Spell. Kill that homunculus.”
Sieg was dumbstruck. Who would think that she could use a Command Spell for such a worthless order? Rider shared the same thought.
Then again, now that Rider thought about it, he realized that his Master had never once talked about what she desired from the Holy Grail. She did aim for victory, of course – but compared to the other Masters, Celenike always felt rather passive. He could understand Caules feeling in such a way – he could hardly be faulted for not wishing to clash with his own older sister – but why such a exemplar magus as Celenike not covet the Holy Grail?
The answer was clear. She had already given up on victory.
But why would she give up on victory? Again, the answer was clear. It was so she could ravage him.
“Get, out of here…!”
The golden lance was brandished at Sieg. Shaking and gnashing his teeth, Rider managed to hold his weapon back.
The Command Spell was a Master’s trump card, representing the right to exercise a command through any such mental chains as pride, duty and faith. No Servant could resist a Command Spell – unless they possessed extremely powerful anti-thaumaturgy.
“My… you are stubborn.”
“Master, please… cancel that order.”
“No! Never! This… yes, this is what I wanted! This is what I wanted to see! Do you feel it now, Rider? The utter loss of hope? You understand, don’t you? Your Noble Phantasm is just barely letting you hold on…”
Once again, Celenike thrust out her hand carved with the Command Spells. Rider’s expression became one of true despair.
Sieg could find no words. She would expend two Command Spells just to kill him? That was impossible – but that was wrong, Sieg realized. Celenike’s goal was not merely the death of a homunculus; it was the breaking of Astolfo’s mind and heart. For that goal, she would not hesitate to employ any means.
“Shall we move on to the second Command Spell…?”
“S-Stop… please, I’ll do anything… just don’t…!”
Rider’s rasping plea, sounding as though it was wringed from his soul, simply fanned the flames of Celenike’s sadism further. As he shook like some defenceless animal, tears streaming down his face, he appeared just so beautiful, so lovely – and so very alluring.
“That’s it… yes, perfect! That’s the face I wanted to see! That’s the only thing I ever wanted!”
It was malice in its purest form. Celenike paid no heed at all to what she would do after expending a second Command Spell; she no longer cared about her life or the Holy Grail War. She just simply wanted to bring despair to her own Servant – and gorge herself on his anguish.
Sieg could not move; if he made any attempt to escape, Celenike would immediately activate her second Command Spell. Rider was managing to hold on thanks to his Noble Phantasm. For the moment, Celenike brandished her Command Spells only as a threat, taking in Rider’s wretched expression with hunger in her eyes. She would never show them mercy – but she would not give her second command just yet.
However, this was only a holding action. They would not have long – Ten seconds? Twenty? – before Celenike decided to move on. As soon as she did, Sieg would die by Rider’s hand.
His second Dead Count Shapeshifter was not yet ready for activation – and even if it were, he could only maintain it for three minutes. Just how long one Command Spell-driven order to “kill” would last, Sieg had no idea – and most likely, neither did Rider or Celenike.
Just as he reached a mental dead end, he finally saw the obvious. Yes, he could proceed to delay events for another three minutes, achieving little more – but what if he were to kill Celenike?
If he did that, the Command Spell’s power should naturally dissolve. It would also cut the lines that tie Rider to this world, of course – but Sieg had his own safeguard for that.
It all came down to his timing. Every twist of his hand and turn of his foot must be smooth and natural. Seeing that Celenike was not paying attention to him, Sieg quietly placed his hand on the dagger at his waist.
There was no time to hesitate. Move… move… move…!
The moment he made to push forward, Celenike’s head turned towards him, her face filled with conviction and cruelty. Chills ran down his back as he realized his failure, and at the same time, a sense of vertigo and nausea brought him to his knees.
“Hmm, it didn’t work all that well.”
Sieg looked down at the foot he brought forward, and clearly saw dull black stains on the ground. It was a trap.
“Don’t take me so lightly. Did you believe you, a mere homunculus, could defeat me, a practitioner of witchcraft? We are all the more sensitive towards enmity and hostility for what we are. I knew what you were planning from the moment you gripped your blade.”
As he crouched down in pain, Celenike grabbed the back of his head and crushed his face into the ground.
“Be quiet a moment, Rider. Don’t you worry… you’ll be the one to finish him off.”
She smashed his face against the ground again. Taking out an old-looking nail, likely some sort of thaumaturgical implement, she stabbed it into Sieg’s right palm. Sieg screamed from the excruciating agony.
“It hurts, doesn’t it? But it hurts me more. Do you know why? I have to see my Servant suffer for scum like you!”
Although only his hand was impaled, he felt as though his nerves were being ripped out of him and sawed apart one by one. Even with his newfound strength, he could not bear it.
“Witchcraft is made of malice, insidiousness, vileness and misery. I know over a hundred ways whose only the purpose is to visit misery upon your body. But while I would love to try every single one of them on you, I haven’t got that much time. For now…”
The small blade that Rider gave Sieg was hanging on the left side of his waist. It was meant to be drawn from its sheath with his right hand. With his right hand impaled, he could only take the handle with his left hand, even as he remained bent and on his knees. Even so, Sieg was not so foolish as to miss this golden opportunity.
Grasping with his left hand, he managed to find the weapon. Before Celenike could sense what was happening, he drew the blade and aimed straight for her neck. Celenike did not anticipate this attack at all, and reflexively bent back to avoid the knife – but it would not be enough. He could cut her… he only needed one slash to take her head.
However, in order to draw from his left side with his left hand, he had to grip the blade in reverse. The slash was more shallow than it should have been.
Celenike survived by the skin of her teeth as Sieg’s critical blow only managed to draw a little blood. Celenike jumped back in a panic and screeched out to hide her own fear.
“What did you do, homunculus?!”
“Get out of here, Sieg…!”
However, Sieg could not move his right hand. As soon as he tried to forcibly tear the nail away, convulsions assaulted his entire body. He could not escape.
“The fourth of the Black orders you with a Command Spell…!”
Celenike’s face was twisted by ecstasy, her eyes shining with a beast-like savagery. This was her true nature – the one she sought to hide in everyday life. Hers was the face of one who would ravish and kill on a whim.
Rider screamed through his tears, but Celenike possessed no mercy, As she took a deep breath to order him to kill the homunculus…
“God, just shut it, will you?”
…Celenike’s head disappeared. Her consciousness severed in an instant, she could not understand what had happened to her at all. Perhaps it was a blessing that she died amidst such joy.
A small-framed girl had performed the deed. Her short blonde hair was lightly tied in the back, and she wore a sporty tube-top with a revealing pair of short jeans and a red jacket on top. The great-sword she wielded was all too much a mismatch for her appearance. Rider realized who she was straight away.
“Correct,” Saber said in a low voice as she grinned. Rider kept his spear raised, his form unbent, and his eyes filled with murderous enmity. Yet despite Astolfo’s hateful gaze, the smile on Mordred’s face did not disappear.
“Leave it, Rider. You are still bound by whatever is left of that Command Spell. Be still – or you may find yourself aiming for him instead.”
As Mordred said, a Command Spell would continue to act until it was overwritten by the Master, or the prana contained by it was used up. Command Spells were disposable by design, and his Master was hardly able to issue a second order now, so the Command Spell would wear off eventually as long as Rider continued to resist it.
In other words – even if an enemy were to attack now, he could do nothing until he was freed.
“Hmph… which is a shame, seeing as I haven’t the time to deal with you right now. We have to head to that flying fortress. You just stay on the ground like the worm that you are.”
Both Rider and Sieg widened their eyes at her unexpected words. The Saber of Red shifted her gaze to Sieg – naturally on guard against her deadly opponent from moments ago – as the cursed nail faded away due to Celenike’s demise. However, there was no sign of blood-lust or animosity on her face. In fact, there was some measure of empathy she gazed at him.
“Geez… you two just ruin my mood… well, time for me to go. But know this… the Grail is mine. Get in my way – cross paths with me ever again – and I will cut you down. Do not pursue it. It is not fit for ones of your station.”
Losing all interest in the two, Saber disappeared. It was as though she had killed Celenike simply because she happened to pass by.
“D-Don’t, don’t come near me, idiot! What if I kill you?!”
Sieg hurriedly stopped himself as Rider cried out, unusually shrilly. He was slick with sweat and looked utterly exhausted. It must have been taxing to resist the Command Spell for so long – and it seemed would take a further toll still.
“Rider… do you have enough prana?”
“I’m all right. I have my Independent Action, luckily. I can… I can still hold on for a while longer. But…”
He sounded far from all right. Certainly, Servants with that skill could act for several hours to an entire day even while completely cut off from their Master’s prana supply. However, Rider was also simultaneously resisting a Command Spell, something that he would be unlikely to succeed at even under normal circumstances. He only lasted so long by keeping his Noble Phantasm active the entire time. At this rate, he would last barely minutes.
“N-No! I won’t! I won’t…! I haven’t come this far… to kill you now…! I’d rather… disappear…!”
Rider put on a light smile even as his body shook, as he effortlessly suppressed his own fear of death. However, Sieg was not about to let him die like this.
“Rider! Form a contract with me!”
“Wha?! W-Whoa, stop, stop! Out of my way!”
Rider, taken aback by Sieg’s abrupt suggestion, lost control of his lance and leapt towards him. Sieg moved back hastily and Rider managed to force himself to a stop just as the lance’s tip flashed over Sieg’s chest.
“D-Don’t surprise me like that! What do you mean, ‘contract’?! A Servant can’t form a contract with another Servant! It’s against the rules and it’s impossible!”
“Yes, I am a Servant… but at the same time, I am not.”
Sieg showed his Command Spells to the confused Rider.
“Do you see, Rider? I have the Command Spells – meaning that I qualify as a Master as well.”
“B-But, that would mean drawing you into this war..”
“Rider… I may be just an infant not even a year ago… a child, who knows the way but not the means… but at the very least, I know what I have to do right here and now.”
Rider might be attempting to kill him – but electing to escape by himself was simply another point of no return. Time was running out.
“You want me… to contract with you, right now? You’ll die if I lose myself even for an instant!”
“If I die, you die as well. It would be like a double suicide… we won’t owe each other anything. Besides, if the other option is to stand here while watching you die… I might as well be dead myself.”
“Okay, okay, I get it! I give up! Form a contract with me!”
Sieg nodded and thrust out his right hand. Grittng his teeth, Rider grabbed his hand. The Command Spell pressed Rider incessantly, ordering him to kill, while Rider continued expending massive amounts of prana to resist it.
There was not a second left to waste. Sieg raised his voice and chanted the words of contract.
“Let it be declared now;
your flesh shall serve under me, and my fate shall be with your sword.
Submit to the beckoning of the Holy Grail.
Answer, if you would submit to this will and this truth.
Answer to me and my words. Will your fate be as mine?”
“By the name of Rider shall your oath be answered!
You shall be my Master – and I, your Servant!”
Immediately, light raced between their clasped hands, and a path-way forced open between them, binding them. The Rider of Black found himself a new Master, and was allowed to stay on this earth for a little while longer. The contract was concluded between the Servant Rider and the Master who was himself a Servant, Sieg.
“Was that… it, then…?”
“Yes, it’s done.”
“G-Get away, then!”
At a lost, Sieg jumped aside as the golden lance swept across the spot where he had stood. Although he had become Rider’s new Master, the previous order against him was still active.
Even as he panted, Rider’s expression became one of relief.
“Th-That was close… what kind of Servant tries to kill his Master right after the contract…?”
“It’d be one for the history books.”
“No books! Anyway, if that’s been settled, I would prefer you getting away from me right now… um, until this order is cancelled, I mean. I can catch up with you later!”
“All right, I’ll make my way to the castle, then. Considering the situation, no magus or homunculus should obstruct. I want to confirm their intentions.”
“As you wish… but be careful of Caster. Out of them all, he was definitely the most interested in you. Well, I guess he’s at that flying fortress right now…”
Sieg nodded in understanding. It would be a dangerous trip, of course; at the moment, Sieg was resolutely neither an enemy nor an ally of the Yggdmillennias. Frankly, Sieg himself was not sure as to where he stood. He did not even know whether he wanted to stand against that clan of magi, or pursue the path of reconciliation.
The homunculi were also a source of uncertainty for him. Even were they to survive the Great Holy Grail War, what would they do? They was made to be extinguished, meant to be expended and used up. What life could they possibly choose? How would they live?
On that point, Sieg neither could nor felt he should help them. If he did, it would be no different from thoughtlessly following the will of another. In the end, they would have to choose their own paths by their own will. Even if theirs was a transient existence – no, perhaps precisely because of it – their lives should not be spent for anybody but themselves.
Looking up, he could see the fortress, so gigantic as to nearly obscure the moon. Sieg had no interest in the Holy Grail; after all, one’s wishes must be granted through the strength of one’s own hands. But there were Servants there at that very moment fighting to the death over it.
When the dust cleared, whose wishes would be granted? Would Jeanne d’Arc be able to judge over them as Ruler?
How would Ruler feel about him entering the Great Holy Grail War – sorrowful, or indignant? Or did she perhaps already know and had accepted this result as his fate?
Whichever the case, he got the feeling that…
“…she’s going to be angry.”
Sieg muttered, and quietly sighed.