A cold silence surrounded the Hanging Gardens of Babylon – the Noble Phantasm created by the Assassin of Red, the likes of which had never been seen before, that had managed to secure the Greater Grail.
A young man with brownish skin and silver hair steadily watched his opponent, wearing a gentle smile at odds with the air of deceit that surrounded him. Opposite him stood a girl, white as snow and with golden hair, her mouth forming a thin hard line and her eye delivering a scorching glare.
There should not be more than one of them – they both knew that well. After all, they were both Servants of the Ruler class – a Servant who never suffers the presence of another. Where there were supposed to be one singular overseer passing judgment on this conflict, here now stood two. What was more, one of them was participating as a Master of the Red camp.
“What are you plotting at, Amakusa Shirou? Would you truly go so far in your desire for the Holy Grail?”
“I am sure you can empathize. After all, you believe in Him just as I do.”
“You do not fool me… we both know that the Greater Grail of Fuyuki is not the Holy Grail we know most well.”
The Servant of the Ruler class – Jeanne d’Arc – pressed Shirou, rejecting his lies.
“Then there is hardly a need to be so protective of it, now is there?”
It was then, with a scornful laugh, that Shirou’s Servant decided to take form.
“Assassin… was this your doing?”
The Assassin of Red – Semiramis – chuckled at Ruler’s blunt interrogation.
“I see… so you suggest it was I who had deceived and misled my pure and innocent Master, leading him down this path of evil? Unfortunately, I am but a Servant, and Servants follow their Masters…”
“And what have you done to our Masters?”
The Archer clad in verdant green – Atalanta – approached Assassin, her sharp gaze entirely that of a predator ready to tear at the throat of her prey.
“Surely you mean your former Masters?”
Semiramis answered calmly. Achilles – the Rider of Red – managed to hold Atalanta in check, but he himself surveyed the pair with bloodcurdling animosity.
“There is no need to worry; they are alive and well. As I have said, they surrendered their rights as Masters peacefully. They now dream of a world where they have won the Holy Grail War. It would be most… prudent not to disturb them.”
The two Servants of Red moved at nearly the same time – Atalanta drawing and releasing an arrow, and Achilles thrusting his spear directly at Shirou’s neck. However, at the same time, another two of the Red camp came to Shirou’s defense. The Lancer of Red snatched Atalanta’s arrow out of the air, and Semiramis warded off the spear with her left hand. Of course, she did not do so unarmed; a set of black, fish-like scales spread from her hand. Although the armor was blown apart by Achilles’ spear, it managed to stop the thrust.
“Hmph… to think you would be able to pierce the scales of the sacred fish with such ease. As to be expected, I suppose… more and more, you prove yourself to be a true offspring of the Gods.”
Semiramis frowned and rubbed her bloodied hand.
“Heh… I could have put my spear through your scales, your arm and his head, if I’d really wanted to.”
“Yes, I suppose you could have – but that would be tantamount to suicide, Rider. I am your Master right now.”
“I don’t recall agreeing to a change in Masters. I might have never seen his face, but I’m not going to betray him.”
“That is only a matter of perspective, Rider. You have betrayed no one, I assure you.”
Rider clicked his tongue and backed away. Instead, Atalanta turned on the Servant that had intercepted her arrow.
“Why do you oppose us, Lancer? Pray tell you do not accept this one as our Master!”
“Strictly speaking, he is our Master… and while I also do not yet approve of this change, you are all far too heedless. Were there not truths you ought to probe before resorting to violence?”
At his words, Archer also backed away reluctantly.
“Thank you, Lancer.”
The Lancer of Red – Karna – did not bother turning to face Shirou.
“Spare me your gratitude. I did not act for your sake in the first place… and you would have had no difficulty evading that yourself to begin with. Do not force my hand again.”
“All right, I suppose…”
Shirou shrugged with a troubled smile, and turned to face Ruler again.
“We would like to make some requests. After all, this Great Holy Grail War is all but finished. Aside from Assassin, only three Servants of Black remain…”
“…four Servants of Black: Saber, Archer, Rider, and Caster…”
Shirou’s expression darkened slightly at Ruler’s interjection.
“Rather overassuming of you to include Saber, no? From what I see, he can barely last several minutes.”
“You are correct – but he is Saber none the less.”
Shirou smiled faintly and did not bother to argue the point. After all, sorrow filled Ruler’s face even as she made her claim.
Currently, the Master of the Saber of Black – Siegfried – was a homunculus. However, Saber could not strictly be called a full Servant. Instead, his was an exceedingly rare case where he needed to possess his own Master in order to take form in the world. In addition, Siegfried could only materialize for 180 seconds. As such, his existence did not weigh heavily in Shirou’s mind. On the other hand, Jeanne believed in his importance in what was to come.
“We will leave it at that. As for the Assassin of Black and its Master… while I still do not know their exact location, they are ones behind the serial killings, yes? I doubt we can truly consider them participants – just as I doubt they are truly your allies. They can be removed from the Black camp. So then, what would you make of the situation, Archer… Chiron?”
“I am afraid I do not understand. In this situation, it appears rather clear to me that Ruler and the Servants of Black stand on the same side. On the other hand, the Servants of Red hardly appear to form a united front at the moment. Under such conditions, neither camps appear to hold any great advantage.”
Archer’s words were not mere bluster but based on keen observations. At the very least, the Servants of Red were not about to attack them all at once; they were far too untrusting of their own Master.
“I see… and what about you, Caster?”
“Well, as for me… I do not comprehend why you did not simply assault with your entire force to annihilate the Black camp. After all, Ruler’s Command Spells will not work on you and – unlike Servants such as Archer and Ruler – I myself will certainly prove no match for any of you. Perhaps… there is something you wish to propose?”
Jeanne and Chiron stiffened at the implication of his words.
The Caster of Black, masked and clad all in blue, did not stir in the slightest – simply gazing directly at Shirou.
“Yes, Avicebron – I wish to propose your surrender.”
Shirou revealed Caster’s true name without any fanfare – but that no longer came as a shock to any of them. While Shirou did not possess Command Spells against the participating Servants of this Grail War, as a Ruler, he still possessed the ability to discern the true names of every Servant present.
“If you would not kill me… then how would you activate the Holy Grail? Would you not fail to meet the required amount of defeated Servants?”
“That is of no concern. I understand this Holy Grail better than anyone else. Rest assured that both of our wishes can be fulfilled without either intruding on the other – assuming that what you hope for is within my expectations, of course.”
“I have one condition.”
“Please, go ahead. I will do my best to accommodate.”
“I have no issue with accepting you as my Master… however, I ask that you entrust to me my former Master, Roche Frain Yggdmillennia.”
“I do not wish him harmed.”
Shirou nodded in understanding. Semiramis laughed.
“We have here a most praiseworthy Servant! So you would offer your services in exchange for your lord’s safety…”
“Caster… you dare…”
Chiron spoke in a spine-chilling whisper; Achilles understood this to be proof of his immense anger. Ignoring Chiron’s words, Avicebron walked towards Shirou.
“Your hand, please.”
“You will excuse me if I do not bare my arm…”
Without any hesitation, he thrust out his hand. Shirou grasped it with his own and began the incantation for a fresh contract.
Chiron’s arrow, fired to stop them, was met by Karna’s divine spear. The deflected shaft embedded itself in the roof of the chamber and exploded loudly. Lancer fixed his gaze on him.
“Heroic Spirits summoned by the Holy Grail are to serve their Masters under the Command Spells and prana lines, but we Servants still possess the right of choice. I know not whom Caster’s former Master was… but should you not respect his decision, sage?”
Semiramis scowled as she complained.
“Do not damage my garden, Archer of Black. Your efforts are meaningless… destroying this place is beyond you.”
Chiron sighed, understanding that he could do no more. Thinking back, all the signs leading to this situation were already present. The Caster of Black had faithfully fulfilled his role, that is, the creation of golems. However, he held no particular interest in anything else – not in the progress of the war, nor whether he would obtain the Grail. Was this not a possibility from the start?
“I accept you as my Master – Amakusa Shirou Tokisada.”
Swiftly severing his bond with Roche, Avicebron became a Servant under Shirou.
“Allow me to give your first order immediately: surround them.”
“Understood, my lord.”
Perfectly composed, the Caster of Black made a small pulling motion with one finger on his right hand. Immediately, the doors of the chapel were thrown open and several golems rushed in. They were Avicebron’s absolute best units, into which he put all his skill. The golems of bronze, iron and earth moved with the gusto of actual living creatures, promptly taking position on all four sides of the Chiron and Jeanne. With the Servants of Red also present, the two were well and truly trapped.
“To be perfectly honest, I feel this is most underhanded and somewhat against my own wishes… but another Ruler is simply too much trouble. You and Archer shall perish here.”
Avicebron snapped his fingers at Shirou’s cold declaration, and his golems hurled themselves at the pair.
The Archer of Black placed an arrow on his bow and Ruler brandished her holy standard as the two met the charge. Although regular golems would not even slow down these two Servants, these ones were directly controlled by Avicebron and performed with agility and precision rivaling high-class Servants.
“While I would love to ask for the cooperation of all of you here… I suppose the pride of these two would not allow it. What will you do, Lancer?”
“You cannot provoke me with your implications of cowardice, priest. Command me to destroy them here and now, and I will. In this case, however…”
Karna raised his spear – but his attention was on neither Chiron nor Jeanne, instead focusing on the door through which the golems had burst through.
Striking the maw of one golem, Ruler quickly shifted her posture.
She called out to Chiron, who nodded without hesitation and leapt backwards swiftly. At this, Semiramis threw out her right hand.
Her incantation did not fill even a single verse – but within the Hanging Gardens, every spell she constructed became a great thaumaturgy. The blade of light she released was fixed, not on Ruler, but naturally upon the Archer of Black.
It was then that crimson lightning raced into the chapel.
The Servants of Red did not hide their surprise, shocked by the sudden ambush – except Karna. The knight who swept in was like a whirlwind, shooting red sparks all around and swinging a great-sword, bisecting two golems in one attack.
“She is here…”
Karna stepped forward swiftly and released a thrust. However, the knight masterfully parried his spear and then scaled a golem who moved to engage her, climbing to its head and plunging her sword in.
“Archer…! So this is why…!”
Semiramis glared at the hole in the roof opened by Chiron’s arrow earlier. Apparently, he was not merely attempting to prevent Avicebron’s and Shirou’s contract. The noise and burst of energy was meant to bring attention to their location – so that she could find her way here without trouble.
Shirou put on a thin smile as he greeted the intruder. The helm she had worn at their first meeting was long since removed, revealing her brilliant golden hair, ravening eyes – and fearless smirk.
“So you are the Saber of Red… the one who ended the glorious legend of King Arthur, the Knight of Treachery… Mordred.”
“Ha! That name is not yours to call!”
The Saber of Red roared and rampaged about with sword in hand. Semiramis made a noise of exasperation and shouted
“You presume to betray us, Saber?!”
“Are you dense?! You betrayed us! You schemed to kill my Master – and that makes you my enemy! Words will not save you from me!”
She stormed as her blade traced an arc in the air, unleashing an attack which tore apart the floor between Shirou and Jeanne, as though demarcating the two. Pieces of wood and stone flew into the air, followed by something sent flying into the chapel from far off in the distance. One surviving golem tried to intercept the attack reflexively, but by some sort of contraption, white smoke was shot out and soon filled the entire chamber.
“Enough with the irksome tricks…!”
Semiramis was fuming with rage.
“Archer, Saber, disengage now! Quickly!”
Chiron and Mordred, in wordless agreement, beat a hasty retreat from the ruined chapel.
“They must not escape, Shirou.”
“Please leave them to me.”
Avicebron stepped forward and – ignoring the clear bewilderment of the others – disappeared from the chamber, carried by one of his own golems.
“Well, what say we leave this to him?”
“Are you serious? He’s a Caster…”
“He stands against Ruler, Saber, and Archer… doubtless that he will only be crushed in turn.”
“He only wants to prove to us…”
Semiramis tilted her head, puzzled by Shirou’s murmurs.
“And what is it he wishes to prove? His strength, so that he is worthy to join our cause?”
“No, Assassin… he only wants to demonstrate that the existence he will soon bring to is the greatest to ever be. There is no self-interest in his actions – only the purest faith.”
A tradesman was one who devoted his spirit into his creations – his cause, his pride, and his technique. Avicebron was decisively different, for he offered his faith – his heart of worship. He worked for neither a cause nor the spirit of self, but simply continued to create more of his one focus. That was the sole reason why the Caster of Black joined the Red camp, to continue his pursuit of the ‘pinnacle’: the Anti-Army Noble Phantasm he was attempting to create… that transgression, the golem Keter Malkuth.
* * *
Avicebron commanded the golem to accelerate. He would not be able to reach Rider and Archer in a hundred years with his own two feet, but through the use of golems, he could pursue them effortlessly and at leisure.
First, he had to communicate with his former Master, who must be very confused at this point. He reached out to Roche via telepathy; while no longer his Servant, Avicebron still possessed some thaumaturgical tools that made long-distance communications a simple feat.
“Roche… Can you hear me, Roche?”
“S-Sir? Oh, thank goodness, you’re still alive!”
His voice was enough to reveal that he was overcome by tears – which was not unexpected, considering the contract between them had been so suddenly severed.
“There is no time to go into the details, but please calm yourself. Even now, you are very important to me. I require your help with completing an important step in our coming operation.”
“Y-Yes, sir! What do you need?”
Leaving the matter of transport to the golem, Avicebron glided through the Hanging Gardens as he talked to Roche.
“I need you to bring me the ‘core’ from my workshop. It is finally time to activate my Noble Phantasm.”
Flustered, Roche ended the dialogue.
Once Archer reached the castle, they would know that Caster had betrayed them – but it was most likely that Roche would come to him all the same. Avicebron was certain that the boy so infatuated with him would join him, even after discovering his treachery. He laughed bitterly; at the end of it all, he of all people needed to rely on the things he hated the most – a human being, and a child.
Life truly was but a succession of ironies and falsities, he reflected cynically, and the path to realizing our dreams would always be filled with great obstacles. However, he could not stop now. As a Servant, he was now closer than he had ever been to obtaining his dream – that place which all Kabbalist golemancers aspired to reach.
He no longer had eyes for anything else – not his enemies, not his allies, and not even himself.
* * *
Before they realized it, Mordred had disappeared. Jeanne and Chiron hastened towards the castle.
“Archer… with the fall of both the Lancer of Black and his Master, Darnic, this conflict between Noir and Rouge might as well be concluded. However, while it is not my desire to join one camp or the other, I hope that we may continue to cooperate.”
Chiron concurred. As she said, it was no longer a matter of which camp would obtain the Holy Grail.
“I see no issue with that. With Darnic’s defeat, the next in line to lead my side would be my Master, and she would certainly agree once she understood the situation. Of course, even with a Ruler in the fold, we are still at a clear disadvantage.”
“Right now, our one objective is to stop the Red camp… no, stop Amakusa Shirou Tokisada, at all costs.”
Surely, that was the reason why the Holy Grail had summoned her, even if she had to take as roundabout a method of possessing a living human of this era. Shirou did not seize the Greater Grail simply because he coveted power; he planned to use it and bring about something worse.
You know full well, Jeanne d’Arc… It is for the salvation all mankind.
There was no doubt or hesitation in his gaze. He did not let slip nonsense as though enraptured in some fantasy. That would have better, if anything – for Jeanne could sense nothing but the truth when he spoke. His words were the summation of a long-nurtured plan, built by layers upon layers of considerations. The Greater Grail of Fuyuki was activated by gathering the souls of Heroic Spirits in a process called the Holy Grail War – and Shirou devised a use for it that was likely beyond the imagination of even its original creators.
“The salvation of all mankind…”
“Do you believe him, Ruler? Do you think that boy is telling the truth…?”
“I do. And that Holy Grail is the means to that end – though the one thing I cannot imagine is what that would be.”
‘Saving the world’. The words were a farce, a game with words. No saint, king, or nation in the world could accomplish such a thing. Fortune and misfortune were two sides of the same set of scales, weighing equal. Blessings upon one individual simply brought curses upon another. Perfect ‘salvation’ might be possible on a small scale – within the minuscule confines of a single tale, a family, a group, or a single state, perhaps. But the wider the boundaries become, the more people become trodden underfoot.
“…and yet he was so utterly assured. He would aim to accomplish the task by means we cannot dare to conjure.”
“The problem is… whether it is true salvation.”
The answer was clear; ‘salvation of all mankind’ did not exist. It must not. The thoughts and actions of a single man could not define ultimate happiness for all of humanity.
“What about the Saber of Red, then?”
“If we had perished there, everything that followed would have gone according to Shirou’s will. Saber and her Master likely acted to prevent that. As to whether they would join forces with us…”
After all, that Saber seemed very confident in herself, Jeanne thought. To be expected of the Knight of Treachery who brought a king’s legend to an end, perhaps.
“What of the other Servants?”
“I do not know… both Rider and Archer are proud heroes. But their Master is Shirou now, and as long as he holds the Command Spells, they can do little about it.”
Lancer Karna, the peerless hero of ancient India; Archer Atalanta, the great huntress of the Greek myths; Rider Achilles, a man who has carved his name into history; Assassin Semiramis, the Assyrian queen; and Ruler Amakusa Shirou Tokisada, known as a boy of miracles. There was also Caster, who did not appear then but doubtless held great power as well. Finally, they were joined by the Caster of Black, the legendary Kabbalist and greatest golemancer in history, Avicebron.
On top of that, even the Greater Grail had been taken. The odds were entirely against them, and the sense of urgency would only increase as time passed. However, Ruler did not lose track of what she needed to do first; her greatest priority was making the Black camp understand exactly the situation they were in.
* * *
Crap, crap, crap…!
Betraying his appearance, Shishigou Kairi fled through the Hanging Gardens with unexpected nimbleness. He and Saber were trying to find a way to escape the flying fortress.
“Damn it! Nothing can ever go right, can it…!”
“No need to throw a tantrum, Master.”
“Yes, there is! They got a Servant for a Master, the cheating bastards! And a Ruler on top of that… and a survivor from the third war sixty years ago! This can’t get any worse!”
Mordred laughed loudly as she ran alongside him.
“Ha ha, that just simplifies things! All of them are our enemies! Excellent!”
“Not excellent! For now, we need to team up with the Black side, and that girl with the flag. Looks like she’s the real Ruler…”
Surely, they understood that Shishigou was not their enemy. After all, why would he send Saber into that chaotic mess if not to deliver such a message?
The floor shook. The Hanging Gardens were ascending.
“We are leaving, Master!”
“Wait, what are you…!”
Shishigou could not stop Mordred picking him up; he did not even have time to finish speaking before Mordred leapt off the side of the Hanging Gardens in a single breath, propelled by her Prana Burst. Their descent did not so much resemble that of a gently swaying parachute as that of a launched missile. Shishigou was clinging outside the cockpit of a fighter jet cruising at the speed of sound.
“You…! Are…! Nuts…!”
“Hahahahaha! Stop worrying and trust me!”
“My trust in you just took a nosedive off the side of a flying fortress!”
His ears were ringing. After a split second’s decision, Shishigou swallowed some remedy that would fortify him physically for an instant, and managed to control his hysteria. Of course, it was simply a brief consolation. If Saber made a single mistake, a very unpleasant accident awaited him on the ground.
They touched down, slowing from subsonic speeds to just around two hundred kilometers per hour. Saber skidded along the ground, killing most of the impact, but Shishigou still felt as though he was being pummeled by a heavyweight boxer. She bounded and skipped, slowing down with every step, and eventually Mordred and her passenger landed safely. Physically speaking, at least – Shishigou’s mind had been shattered into a million pieces.
I thought I was dead for sure…
That was the most succinct description of what Shishigou felt right now, and he swore to himself that the next time they decided to invade the Hanging Gardens, he would bring something actually meant to fly.
* * *
A significant portion of the forest had been mowed down by the Berserker of Red. It was at the lake at the northern tip where they were to meet.
Roche, riding a mobility golem moving at full speed, could feel himself shaking with joy. He was holding a giant cylindrical key – the ‘core’. At last, it was time to use it and activate the ultimate golem – Keter Malkuth. Even the golems that Caster had crafted on the side all this time exceeded their expectations in terms of their craftsmanship and the materials used in their construction. Yet Caster had called this one golem his greatest work. Despite being simply another Magus, Roche had been allowed to bask in its glory. How could he not rejoice?
Young, innocent Roche hurried on as commanded. He no longer cared about the Holy Grail War; witnessing the activation of this Noble Phantasm was victory enough for him.
Standing before the lake was Avicebron, who nodded lightly and greeted him as always.
“Here it is… I didn’t get it wrong, did I?”
“No, you did well.”
“That’s good… but, sir, didn’t you make this one quite a while ago? Why did you never activate it until now?”
Avicebron ignored the question. Taking the ‘core’ from Roche, he unceremoniously threw it into the mud and crouched, placing a hand in the clear water of the lake.
“What are you…?”
Avicebron put a finger to his lips, gesturing for him to be silent. Roche promptly covered his mouth with both hands. Then, before this still pool, the Caster of Black recited an incantation in a sonorous voice.
“Born of mother Earth, let thee take in the Wind of wisdom, drink deep of the Water of life…”
It was a prayer to Heaven to breath life into the earth.
“A brand of Fire shalt rest in thy hand, removing thee from the Devil of disease. Thy rancor shalt sunder thee, yet thy love shalt cleanse thy blood…”
Earth, wood, and his own flesh: he offered them all to his Lord. It was the apex of esotericae possible only for this man who desired neither power nor fame.
“Let thee be a colossus, soaring amongst the highest peaks. Let thee be stone, unyielding and firm. Let thy form befit thine office… our guardian, our leader, our great foundation…”
It was the crystallization of a miracle, the scale of which could no longer be defined as a Noble Phantasm.
“Thou art of earth yet not of earth, of man yet not of man. Thou shalt rest in paradise. Thou shalt rule it, for we would be led to its gates by thee. Thou art Dream. Thou art Hope. Thou art Love.”
It was the realization of the faith of those who had suffered through history, a recreation of His divine will – a pawn that would take up the task of recreating the world.
“Thou art the First Man, bearing the Holy Spirit… thy name be Adam.”
The lake frothed and seethed.
This was what Avicebron and Roche had been building in secret even as they continued the production of the golem soldiers. At first, Roche thought it was just a larger golem – exceedingly large, close to fifteen meters tall – and nothing much besides. Even Roche, with his skill, would be able to craft such a golem were he to spend fifty years on its creation – though he would only be able to recreate its size. Its quality would be a different matter entirely.
Even so, such a creation would not be particularly rare. Roche had heard tales of a witch who once possessed something on the same scale, or perhaps even bigger. Considering the age of that tale, it could be inferred that that witch’s creation would also be stronger, spiritually speaking. Even the material used to create this golem was nothing particularly special, despite their cost – their best quality being their pristine state.
However, Roche could not help but gasp in wonder. This golem was utterly abnormal on a conceptual level – though perhaps it was most fitting for Avicebron.
“This is a golem closest to its origin…”
The common perception of a golem was that of a manmade existence birthed by some thaumaturgical method, but that was not entirely correct. The golem was a foetus – ‘that which is without shape’. Golemancy was the arcane craft of the Lord to breathe life into Adam and thus mankind.
Many magi would shape earth into their desired form and bring it to life, but no further. After all, that one step further into what was beyond was the dearest wish of all Kabbalists, and not one to be taken lightly. In addition, the more perfected a golem, the more it became an existence removed from the magus’ original design.
The ultimate golem represented the parousia of Adam – the king protector who would finally lead his people, after enduring many years of suffering, to Paradise.
A massive arm extended from the lake. All the material used to create it – stone and earth and wood – were of respectable age and entirely natural, never having been employed as construction material or fuel. A third of Darnic’s fortunes went into procuring them.
Finally, its upper torso appeared, like a citadel raising from the surface of the water. After that, however, it stopped. Without the water of the lake, this golem could move no further – for now, at least.
“It is time to install the ‘core’. Are you ready, my Master?”