* * *
Sieg’s face clouded over as he surveyed the half destroyed castle.
He could see a slender arm, likely belonging to a homunculus, jutting out from under some debris – and hurriedly ran towards it when he saw it twitch.
The arm responded to his call, hand turning upwards as though reaching for something – help, Sieg realized. He placed his hand on the debris covering the homunculus. The thaumaturgy he employed was meant only for the destruction of its target; as such, there was no risk of it impacting upon whoever was trapped beneath.
After fully understanding its composition, Sieg accelerated his Magic Circuits and quickly blew apart the rubble. It was his best use of thaumaturgy yet, and everything burying the homunculus was reduced to dust – but he was too late.
Simply hurrying over to her side was not enough to save her. It was laughable to begin with, his belief that lending his hand before she was fully crushed would lead to her salvation. In the end, no one but her could have made the choice to save her: the choice to have not participated in the battle at all.
“Thank you, I owe you my life. Has the battle concluded?”
The debris striking her head had likely robbed her of most of her sight. The homunculus reached out every which way, her eyes glazed over. Sieg might have shattered the rubble crushing her, but she had been run clean through by one of the candlestands that once stood in the hall – and the direct impact of what must have been the aftershock of Spartacus’s strike had removed both of her legs. However, perhaps due to her non-functional pain receptors – or her conscious decision to overlook the sensation itself – she continued to ask of her duties in a detached tone of voice.
“Yes… it’s over.”
The girl sighed, solaced by his words. The act was entirely too human.
“In that case, I must return to my cleaning duties… but I will dirty the floors like this. How clumsy of me… I must change out these clothes, and trade this halberd for a broom, quickly… but first, I need to stop this bleeding…”
Killing his emotions, Sieg firmly grasped the hand of the girl without a single tremor.
“It’s all right. I’ll do that for you, after all of this is over. You should rest.”
“Is that… so?”
Relief crept into her voice.
“To be honest… I am feeling a little tired. If you could, that would be most wonderful. Excuse me while I take a short rest… please wake me after five hours.”
“You… can rest longer than that.”
“Five hours is enough sleep for a homunculus… but it seems my body is quite fatigued. I have never felt so… exhausted…”
She closed her eyes, and her hold on Sieg’s hand weakened. Is there nothing I can do? Sieg thought desperately – but of course, there was not. Eventually, losing her strength entirely, her arm slipped through Sieg’s relaxed grip and fell down. Sieg stood up and turned his back to her; there was nothing more he could do here. He still had his own mission – and its fulfillment would surely bring peace to her soul…
“And to think that you would come back, just for us… you have an unfortunate sense of obligation. But, thank you… for saving me…”
Sieg whipped around in shock, rushing over to take her hand again and check her pulse. But this time, the girl was well and truly gone. It seemed that at some point – perhaps from the very start – she had seen through his badly-performed act. He could not even let her pass away in peace.
How pathetic can I be…
So Sieg thought. However, she had thanked him in the end. Although saddened by the burden he had decided to shoulder, she thanked him for saving her. Enduring both crushing grief and anger, he turned his focus on salvation alone. What he needed to free the homunculi was not strength, which simply functioned as a force of deterrence. What he truly needed was their words, and nothing more.
The war had been thrown into chaos; all the Servants were currently in the field. At the very least, he should be able to sense any Servant within the castle except an Assassin.
Passing through broken walls, he slipped into the heart of the castle. The halls were originally lit by elaborate candles, kept alight by excessive thaumaturgical effort, but most of them had been snuffed out by now. As Sieg walked down the darkened hallways, he could sense none of his colleagues – the homunculi – and his chest tightened. Could it be that the girl he had watched over earlier was the last one…?
There was no sound. Despite the realization that the Yggdmillennia magi were not present, the silence was unbearably horrifying. He called out again.
“Is anyone there…!”
Some faint noise reached his ears. It might be coming from one of the magi – but he was a Master himself now, and held power and authority that they too must recognize. On top of that, he possessed the power of Siegfried. He walked onward without fear. However, some unspeakable repulsion pressed on his heart. As soon as he considered it, he found out the cause.
“This… is where I came from.”
The memory came to him as he walked. Yes, he had once come down this very hallway, from the opposite direction; he had been naked, staggered, and terrified – yet he dragged himself on regardless. The fear he had felt then was still etched in his mind. He had had nothing to call his own, except his life – and even that would soon have been taken away from him. It had simply been too unbearable.
But, now… he was all right. That sensation weighing on him was not horror, but simply discomfort from ruminating on the unpleasant past.
“The sound came from that room…”
It was where he had been born – that underground chamber filled with prana tanks. He himself had been built with the purpose of providing energy and dying in the process of doing so. He had gained sentience, however, by chance – or perhaps by fate. With these rather abstract thoughts in mind, Sieg opened the door to the chamber.
“So you’re the intruder, huh…”
A homunculus pointed a halberd at him. Her voice sounded somewhat familiar.
Yes, she was the first homunculus he had called out to – the first to leave the field of battle.
“Thanks to you, I managed to escape from that place. I must have been lucky, I suppose… that last attack was utterly beyond us.”
The weapon she thrust at him was brought back.
Many homunculi were still afloat in the tanks around them. Their barely opened eyes showed no signs of life; their hearts beat but their minds did not yet possess thoughts. They did not yet ‘live’ but merely ‘existed’. However, much like Sieg himself in the past, they sought salvation – and given the chance, they would certainly awake.
“Hurry, we have to…”
…release them, Sieg tried to say before the homunculus stopped him.
“Calm down. We are preparing the necessities now.”
Immediately, two homunculi came over to them carrying some makeshift stretchers, seemingly made from curtains from the hallway. They also brought clean sheets and clothes.
“We didn’t know how many there were. We got as much as we could.”
The young female homunculus was gasping for breath, as though having ran here at full tilt. When she noticed Sieg, her eyes widened and she began glowering at him with arched eyebrows, seemingly angry. The young homunculus pointed a finger at Sieg and said.
“At least say something if you’re still alive, idiot.”
The three homunculi were in agreement. While somewhat staggered by the sudden denouncement, Sieg then came to a realization.
“Did all of you sense it when I died…?”
They nodded, and a bitter taste filled his mouth. All homunculi crafted by the Yggdmillennia were connected, however weakly, by pathways similar to that between Masters and Servants. One of the results of their mass production, possibly – as while they had a critical lack of individuality, they could all receive important information such as one another’s survival from anywhere without any need for conscious efforts such as telepathy. Of course, such data was not necessary to them precisely due to their sameness; the death of another homunculus was just one more number in the grand calculation.
However, there was one exception: Sieg, the one that had broken out of the castle. However dulled their emotions, they did feel moved to protect him as he attempted his escape. How much had they secretly rejoiced when he had gotten away safely? How much disappointment, when he returned to the field of battle only to fall?
“It’s fine. Come now, help us. We’re going to free them. There won’t be a better chance than this, with all the Servants out of the castle. And if our masters come…”
The homunculi all looked at Sieg who nodded in understanding. Most likely, he was the only one who could stand up to the magi.
“If it comes down to it, I will be your shield… let’s free them all.”
* * *
The task was easier than he had expected once they got started in earnest. After shattering the tank with the halberd, they removed the mechanisms used to absorb their prana, while Sieg wiped their bodies dry, dressed them and put them on the stretchers. By exercising their greatest quality – the ability to work with calm and patience – the homunculi were able to carry out the task impeccably.
“Where should we bring them?”
“To our chamber, for the time being. It should be large enough to keep a watch on everyone. Have any of the surviving healer homunculi start on treating them… better leave it to them than us combat and utility units.”
“All right. Let’s get them out of here, then.”
Two of the homunculi lifted a stretcher.
Their ‘patient’ opened his mouth, as though trying to breath. However, he could not make a sound with the wholly deficient vocal cords which he had never used before. Sieg held his hand up gently and prayed that he could hear his words.
“Don’t worry… you’re safe now.”
The homunculus lying on the stretcher blinked and nodded, his stiffened expression loosening ever so slightly. He might have been thirsting for salvation, but such confusion was to be expected considering the nature of his sudden awakening.
“Could you… call to him while we move him to the room? That should keep him somewhat relaxed.”
And so they carried him off while Sieg called out to him again and again. Eventually, the combat homunculi that had survived the battle, and the utility units that were stationed around the castle, began to appear one after another, helping their fellows. The first homunculus brandished her halberd, directing them briskly. Sieg continued his task of calming the released homunculi.
“You’re all right…”
“You don’t need to worry…”
None of them could voice a single word – but their faces spoke clearly enough to him and all of the silent homunculi rescuers.
Not all of the ones that came out of the tanks were survivors. The more they broke out, the more they found that had already been consumed by the previous great battle. The rescuers did not put them on stretchers, only wrapping the sheets around them completely. Hopefully there would be time later to grieve for them later – so Sieg thought, and something came to the corner of his eye that he was unable to push back. The other homunculi, with their diluted emotions, were able to withstand it – but Sieg could not hold his tears. Having been granted the heart of a hero, and experienced death and rebirth himself once, he was severely shaken. The homunculus with the halberd tapped on his shoulder.
“Well, you can cry all you want… but try to hold it in for now. Something is coming.”
At her words, Sieg noticed it as well. A storm was charging down the hallway – but not Servants. Most likely it was the Masters, and their hostility was clear.
“Combat units, to the front!”
Following her direction, the combat homunculi clutching halberds and candlestands stepped to the front, while the others moved to continue their work at the back of the chamber. The door was thrown open and three magi swept in, ready for battle. First came Gordes – the one who had tried to kill Sieg – followed by the Forvedge siblings, Fiore and Caules. It was less than Sieg had expected even discounting Celenike, whom Mordred had dispatched earlier. Where were Darnic and Roche?
Whatever the case, the three present were certainly no easy game. Sieg concentrated on Gordes, glaring at him. The magus was shaking slightly – from rage rather than fear, judging from his expression.
“What are you all doing…?”
“Isn’t it obvious? We’re freeing them.”
Gordes let out a low snarl at Sieg’s matter-of-fact reply. As though sensing the deadlock, Fiore pushed herself in front of Gordes. Considering their prowess as magi, she likely held the most authority among them.
“And why are you doing such a thing, homunculus?”
Fiore asked coolly, her attitude exemplary of a magus. There was no anger in her tone; she spoke simply to inquire the truth. Sieg answered.
“Living as sacrifices just to be pumped dry of prana… no one deserves a death like that.”
“Even if that was the task they were created for?”
“They have no obligation to fulfill a task that was pressed upon them.”
“Hold on… hold it!”
Gordes cut in again and drew towards Sieg with overt animosity.
‘You…! You were the one that Rider tried to stand up for! Why must you interfere with our progress again and again?! Save the homunculi…? That’s preposterous! I made you, all of you! I decide what each of you will do! You – you’re supposed to provide prana! And you serve us directly! And you were made for battle! I decided that! My decision!”
“Quiet down, won’t you…? We thank you for creating us, but – can’t you just give it a rest? What else is there left for them to do?”
Gordes flinched, and Fiore spoke again.
“And what exactly will any of you do after this? Let us be frank. None of you have long to live, especially the combat units. What time is there for you to accomplish anything?”
The armed homunculi hung their heads. They were already aware of that fact, of course; unlike their fellows meant for utility or prana provision, they were tuned for and highly gifted in physical and magical combat – in exchange for possessing shortened lifespans. They were meant to spend their short lives racing across the battlefield.
“Well… he’s not wrong, I guess. There really isn’t much left for them to do.”
Fiore quelled her younger brother. He might have spoken the truth – but it was not a truth they could admit to just yet. Caules shrugged and turned away.
“The war is not over yet. Homunculus… in the last battle, you transformed into Saber. Did you not return to help…?”
“I am not your ally. I came to save them… that’s all.”
“No… you’re Siegfried! That makes me your Master!”
Gordes approached the perplexed Sieg, grabbing the front of his shirt and shaking him.
“Why, Saber?! Why did you choose oblivion… for a mere homunculus?! Did you have such distaste for battle? You are supposed to be a hero! Or were you so dissatisfied with me as your Master? Answer me, Siegfried!”
Gordes raved at him until losing all his spirit and crumbling to the floor.
“Sorry, but I’m only Saber in appearance… and I don’t know what made him decide to give his heart to me. I don’t know what discontent he might have felt.”
“Was it my fault…? It was simply mayhem… I was lost! If you had just told me… that I was wrong… if you had simply refused, I would have compromised as well! I would have…!”
“What are you saying now? You told him to shut up, didn’t you? What else could he do?”
The homunculi tensed. It was Astolfo. The three magi also seemed to have realize that their kin, Celenike, was dead.
“Rider, your Master…”
“…is Sieg right now. So?”
Casually tossing a grenade into the dialogue, Astolfo promptly moved to Sieg’s side without batting an eye towards the three magi who were rooted to the spot. After all, the Noble Phantasm tome carried by the Rider of Black possessed A-rank Magic Resistance; no magus of the modern era could harm him in any way.
“What’s so bad about this? The homunculi don’t want to fight, for one. What do you want from them?”
“That is unacceptable.”
Fiore stared coldly at Astolfo, gripping the handrims of her wheelchair tightly. She was beginning to suspect that Rider had betrayed them; was it not possible that this Servant had killed his own Master…?
“You can defend this fortress all you want, but you already lost the Grail, right? I mean, it just up and, whoop, gone!”
Astolfo shrugged and replied, showing no hint of whether he was aware of her doubts.
The magi looked down with pensiveness. Indeed, what could allow them to reverse this situation? The Holy Grail – that symbol of the Yggdmillenia – had been seized from them, and by a flying fortress of all things. Such a miracle of the Age of Gods, making the Fortress of Millennia appear a toy in comparison, could only be a Noble Phantasm.
“And you… Gordes, was it? You told him, remember – you told him to never speak. I understand that revealing Siegfried’s true name would be disastrous… but when you said that to him, what it really sounded like was, ‘listen to my instructions because you are incompetent and will ruin our plans’. How could he possibly complain after hearing something like that?”
Gordes made a small noise of dismay. If that had been a mistake, then everything he had done since his first command had been wrong. No… he had been wrong ever since he held to the misassumption that his relation to his Servant would be no different than the usual bond of familiars.
“I… I was just so afraid of his weak point. It is too well known. He was a great hero, yet I simply could not put all my faith in him… I feared that he would be pierced through the back, like a fool – like how he had ended in life.”
It was the instant that Gordes – with a sigh that sounded like it was wringed from his soul – finally recognized his own blunder.
“Let the homunculi be free, Fiore… we have lost. Only Archer and Caster remain in our camp, and if Assassin is as you said, we cannot hope for anything from them. There is no faith to be had in serial killers.”
Gordes murmured, utterly exhausted. Fiore turned her sharp eyes towards Sieg, and the armed homunculi all around him – and at last the homunculi huddled weakly at the back of the chamber. Finally, she turned away with a pained expression.
“Very well… I will give you some time, homunculi. Do as you please.”
The homunculi around Sieg sighed with relief and hurried to care for those in the back of the chamber.
“So, Fiore… what now? Should we send a messenger to the Association to let them know of our surrender?”
“Hardly. We are freeing the homunculi – but the war is not lost.”
Fiore spoke resolutely, letting the others know that she did not yet accept their utter defeat.
“Grandfather once told me that Caster possessed an A-rank Anti-Army Noble Phantasm. With such a weapon, we can continue to fight.”
“But, is that really…?”
Fiore silenced her brother with a forefinger, and then approached Sieg with a warm smile and extended hand.
“Master of Rider, and homunculus capable of artificially summoning Saber – would you please lend us your aid?”
“Y-You lot just don’t quit, do you?! How dare you even ask that of him?!”
Fiore shrugged and replied to Astolfo with a cool expression.
“And what is the issue here? We conceded to release the homunculi – naturally, we expect some form of compensation in return. All the more given that he is a homunculus and both the Master of the Rider of Black and capable of bringing out the Saber of Black.”
“N-No! No, no! Sieg is supposed to have a peaceful life now! No more orders, no more allegations, just…!”
Sieg placed a hand on Astolfo’s shoulder.
“I don’t mind, Rider. I’m a Master now… I’m ready to fight in this war.”
“And I’m a little curious as well. This Great Holy Grail War… is no longer just a conflict of ‘Black’ and ‘Red’, it seems.”
“I’m talking about Ruler. The fact that she was summoned at all means that something is probably wrong.”
“The scale of the conflict itself would be impossible under normal circumstances, no? Would that not be the cause?”
Sieg nodded at Fiore’s suggestion.
“That’s true. However, there is one more situation where a Ruler may be summoned. She said it herself: if the possibility exists that the Holy Grail War will bring ruin to the world, she will be called.”
It would be much simpler if it were as Fiore said, and Ruler had been brought here merely to judge the conflict between two teams of the fourteen Servants.
“Hm… Servants are closing in, Sieg. Two of them.”
“Yeah… it seems I can sense them too, somehow.”
“Archer and Caster, perhaps?”
Fiore tried sending a telepathic message to her Servant; if he was close enough to be detected by other Servants, he must be in range to respond. Chiron answered immediately.
“Are you all right, Archer?”
“Yes, but both Lancer and Lord Darnic have fallen.”
Although the spirit board had already informed them as such, hearing it confirmed by Chiron’s words gripped her with utter despair.
Fiore bit her lip. With their old leader gone, she was in command now. She had no choice but to muster her courage. Surely, Chiron’s return would help to dissolve this unease in her heart.
“Also, Caster has betrayed us.”
“Avicebron has allied with the Red camp against us and seeks to unleash his Noble Phantasm. Is his Master present with you?”
“Caules, go and find Roche! Now!”
Caules did not question his older sister for a second, immediately beginning his search.
“Homunculi… I’m afraid we have urgent need of your aid. We must locate the Master of Caster, Roche. Search every corner of the castle!”
None of them had ever heard seen such franticness in her. The homunculi nodded to each other and followed Caules out of the chamber.
“He is not here. We have begun a search, but…”
“Master, did Lord Darnic inform you of the details of Caster’s Noble Phantasm, Keter Malkuth?”
“Only that it is a large golem, and requires a ‘core’ to activate…”
“The ‘core’ required is a magus.”
Fiore was speechless. Chiron continued dispassionately.
“At first, Caster had planned for the Master of Saber to be employed – so Lord Darnic had advised me.”
“Uncle Gordes is here…”
“In that case, Caster must have chosen his own Master. Not every magus is qualified to act as the ‘core’; it requires certain qualities in terms of Magic Circuits, the Thaumaturgical Crest, the mental condition of the magus, and sheer affinity. Roche was likely the best choice to begin with.”
“But Roche was his Master… so he had to settle for Uncle Gordes instead?”
Fiore was not aware that the homunculus called Sieg was also one of the substitutes. Given Avicebron’s fixation on him, it was possible that Sieg was just as qualified as Roche to act as the ‘core’ – or perhaps even more so.
…respected his own Servant above all else. It was practically worship – and to be expected, considering Avicebron stood atop a pinnacle beyond even the young golemancer prodigy. He admired his Servant from the bottom of his heart. Yet how did the Caster of Black feel about Roche as a Master? Did he have affections for him? Did he find Roche’s high regard for him pleasing? Did he consider him as his own child?
Were any or all of these enough to make Avicebron give up the dream he had pursued throughout his entire life?
“We will reach…”
Fiore suddenly lost contact with Chiron, as though the cable between them were cut. Astolfo’s face darkened as he shouted.
“There’s another Servant headed this way!”
A massive ‘something’ impacted the underground chamber, shaking the floor and causing stones fragments to fall from the ceiling. The entire chamber trembled and shuddered as though in a giant drum being beat upon. However, this place was not designed to endure such a beating; sooner or later, it would collapse.
“Get out of here, all of you!”
Astolfo yelled as he picked up a large group of the rescued homunculi. Sieg and the other rescuers secured the rest and followed him out.
Fiore kicked off her wheelchair, activating the Bronze-Link Manipulators on her back. Using the four deployed arms, she reached ground level at terrific speeds, moving down a hallway and leaping out from one of the windows – and did not hide her shock as she cried out at what she saw.
“Is that… Keter Malkuth…?”
There was one thing that she understood with only a single glance. It was that the golem before her was entirely unlike anything she had ever seen before. Even Roche’s or Aviecebron’s other creations of war could offer no comparison; it was on a completely different level.