Well, at least I beat my last update time. I was still hoping to get it out earlier, but at least this is a long one. The real divergences also happen this chapter.
Thrown backwards once again onto his back, Astolfo could only groan out, "Wah! This guy's insane!"
Astolfo still forced himself back to his feet, and came to the aid of Fran against the enemy Berserker. Fran had clearly not taken kindly to the way she'd been ejected from the group to split them up. Growling and attacking with a fierceness that clearly showed her class, Fran had quickly assumed the position as primary fighter between the two. Good thing too, as they were getting knocked around enough that Fran's surprising capability to take and recover from damage soon became invaluable.
Not that it did much against their enemy. The enemy Berserker was matching them blow for blow, and actually pushing them back. All with a great grin on his face.
It was kind of scary, for Astolfo. He couldn't leave Fran alone though. She'd surely lose to this opponent alone.
Indeed, he was confronted with the sight of the two Berserker's clashing. With furious screams, Fran swung her great mace. Its length and the momentum of its weight surely surpassed her opponent's swords, but the enemy clearly had enough raw strength to render that null. Using the hilts of his swords to halt the head, even blocking with his bare arms if necessary despite the pain it had to cause him, he could then attack with reckless abandonment.
And it was reckless abandonment. Surely if he used his swords properly, his greater strength and speed would give him a major advantage over Fran. Yet he chose to fight like a wild animal, almost. He was content to only block the harsher hits Fran attempted, receiving the more glancing blows with a growing grin and returning them in full. His legs were utilized in full, how Astolfo had once again been kicked away, and sometimes he even punched Fran instead of using the blades he wielded.
Seeing the enemy once again be clipped on his side by Fran's mace, only for the enemy to use that to power a spin that resulted in a kick smashing into Fran's back and sending her through a tree forced Astolfo to jump back into the fight. Trying to attack by surprise from the side failed, the enemy immediately turning and receiving Astolfo's assault. Using one blade to knock the lance to the side, overbalancing Astolfo, and the one smashed down near his grip so hard Astolfo had no choice but to drop it. Berserker juked forward then, shoulder checking Astolfo and pushing him back so hard he had to roll to end up back on his feet instead of on his back.
Astolfo was then forced to watch as Berserker just outright kicked the lance into the forest. Astolfo deadpanned at him before pulling down an eyelid as he taunted, "Who cares? I got a sword too."
"Then let's see how good you are with it," Berserker said without faltering, soon attacking. Astolfo immediately out his sword-having no intent of trying to exchange fists with this monster. It was a simply sword, but very solid and well crafted…It didn't handle well against Berserk's swords though. That just might be Astolfo though. Soon he found himself being falling back as he fended off blows. His own surprising strength failing against the dual assault he found himself trying to repel. Soon another kick lashed out-geez, he'd never fought a person who felt it necessary to kick so much even when dual wielding-forcing Astolfo to bend backwards to avoid being punted away…again.
Too far backwards, it soon became apparent when his balance failed and he found himself on his back. Berserker looming above him, that predatory grin still fixed on his face.
"Kyaa, no! No, get away!" Astolfo screamed out as he tried to distance himself from his opponent, walking like a crab backwards as he desperately tried to avoid the attempts of Berserker to finish him off from his advantageous position.
"Tch, stop screaming. Take your beating with dignity," Berserker grunted out, startlingly casual even as he attempted to stab Astolfo. The erratic and panicked attempts by Astolfo to escape seemingly posing a more troublesome defense than more measured movements would.
"Never! I don't want to be beaten," Astolfo shot back automatically, mouth running as he desperately avoided the enemy strikes. Actually rolling out of the way of a stomp, Astolfo protested indignantly, "Did you just try to stomp on me?! I'm not a bug."
"No, you're just a woman crawling on the ground who's annoyingly difficult to kill," Berserker replied, if anything once again disregarding his swords in favor of repeatedly trying to stomp on his crawling opponent now.
"I'm a guy, just a cute one in fabulous clothing," Astolfo shot back, actually causing Berserker to pause for a moment with one leg still raised in a stomp. "Ha, got you!" Astolfo cried out, stabbing out with his sword at that moment of weakness, Berserker's switching to stomping having brought him closer than when he'd been using his swords.
And it actually worked. To his own surprise, Astolfo's blade stabbed into his lower abdomen-Astolfo couldn't reach higher from his current position. The tip extending out his back.
Both fighters were just a slight bit shocked by that. Any feeling of triumph on Astolfo's side when Berserker dropped one of his swords was quickly squashed though when Berserker used his now free hand to grasp Astolfo's wrist in a grip like steel. Astolfo only was able to let out a squeak before Berserker jerked him upwards-actually stabbing the blade further through himself till the cross guard was pressed against his skin-while smashing his head down to head-butt him so hard enough stars appeared before Astolfo's eyes they outnumbered the ones in the sky.
"Hehe, pretty stars," Astolfo giggled out groggily, before he collapsed on his back.
"Who cares if you're a guy? Man or woman, I disregard all that when it comes to fighting. I'm progressive like that," Berserker said uncaringly, even as he pulled out Astolfo's sword from his own stomach and tossed it into the forest. He then jumped to the side to avoid Fran's vengeful returning blow, the mace making a small crater where Berserker had just been standing. However he counterattacked quickly, launching back at Fran. Using his remaining sword to once again block her next blow with the hilt, he used his free hand to grasp her shoulder and then head-butt her while declaring, "A good brawl strips away all that which doesn't matter. A person's true self is always shown in that moment."
Fran clumsily stumbled backwards, her head tilted back from the blow and her legs shaking. However any thought that she was about to follow Astolfo's example was ended when instead a growl came out of her mouth. Straightening from her bent back posture revealed a bloody forehead and absolutely furious eyes. She then completed the arc by bending forward, using the arc to slam her mace into the ground before her with a scream.
"Huh," Berserker grunted with a frown at the attack that blatantly missed.
Until a pillar of lightning engulfed him. A pained grunt echoed out-probably the closest to a scream of pain such a beast of a man could let out-as electricity ran through his nerves and sent his muscles twitching. The light soon faded, showing a small area of burned grass around him that stopped just short of Fran and Astolfo's feet. Berserker was still standing though, even as lightning visibly jumped across his body.
Astolfo knew the opportunity before him. Having thankfully had several seconds to recover from that disorientating head-butt, he was able to quickly get his feet under him. He then jumped from a crouching position, his sword left on the ground leaving him weaponless. Until an array of golden lights gathered together to form his lance, right as it pierced Berserker's leg. Astolfo was then behind him, a grin on his lips.
"Trap of Argalia: Down with a Touch!"
Berserker naturally stumbled, a hole now in his right leg. However this hole didn't bleed like normal wounds. It instead revealed the nature of Servants as merely magical constructs. The flesh had disappeared, leaving an empty hole in flesh that bled specs of golden light.
It then went further, Bersker's entire right leg from the wound down glowing gold before disappearing. Berserker fell with a grunt at the loss of support, ending up on the ground as if forced to take a knee.
And Fran then took it yet another step further. Using that opening, she stepped forward while swinging her mace in a horizontal arc that left it to connect with Berserker's head. Even the raised arm he attempted to block with wasn't enough from such a strong blow and from such a position of weakness. The block folded in, and the mace connected with his skull with an audible crack and sent him flying.
Through a tree.
…Astolfo was quite pleased at the well served comeuppance.
Astolfo gave a cheer before sticking her tongue out at the sprawled out form of Berserker as he yelled, "Hah, I can just dematerialize my lance and reform it. So kicking it into the forest did nothing, idiot!"
If Astolfo could claim to have actually planned it this way, it would have been a brilliant plan. Allowing his seemingly mundane lance to be disarmed and thrown away, only to reveal it at the critical moment due to a Noble Phantasm's ability to be turned into spirit form. He hadn't planned it though.
Astolfo was just fine with it being a lucky coincidence, however. Better a lucky idiot than a cursed genius was a philosophy he had all but lived by.
Fran just growled though.
Especially when Berserker shot up, throwing off the debris he'd been partially buried under, and declared, "Good, good. This is just what I meant. A brawl strips away everything unimportant. You two looked frail and weak, but there's a good bit of fight in you. Good, good. Much more fun that way."
"I'd be insulted, but I really don't like the feeling I'm getting right now," Astolfo let out, chuckling awkwardly as he took a few steps back.
Argalia was a magical lance Astolfo had come into possession of. It wasn't an overly dangerous weapon by itself. It would make holes in flesh and kill someone if used right, but its real power came from a magical effect. To force everyone it touched to fall, as in fall to the ground. As a Servant, this manifested by dematerializing the enemy Servant's physical form below the knee. However the duration of this dematerialization was determined by the enemy's Luck parameter. For the leg to have reformed already meant he had to possess a very high Luck. That was never a good thing, to have a lucky enemy.
Indeed, it wasn't hard to tell something was wrong. As he approached, it was clear to see Berserker had taken more than a bit of damage. The stab wound in his stomach was clear, severe even if not enough to down a Servant, and Fran's blow had split the skin on his head enough that a positive stream of blood ran down his face and dripped onto his bare chest.
Yet, that grin was still on his face. Actually, it might have been wider and even more manic in intensity. His other appearance had become more…intense as well. His skin seemed to have darkened slightly, and those great scars over his body were vividly red. The one sword he still carried also now glowed as red as blood.
Apparently being stabbed, taking a hit from the weakened version of Fran's Noble Phantasm, and taking a mace to the head was merely enough to make him kick it up a notch.
Rolling his shoulders, Berserker waved his sword as he commented, "This is about to get fun."
"No, it won't," a colder voice interrupted.
And Berserker was forced to avoid a spike stabbing up from the ground, pure instinct guiding him. His sword smashed another that rose behind him, then ducked to avoid several that flew through the air, and finally jumped to avoid several that rose from the ground and would have pierced his feet. After that he got a moment of reprieve, as the new participant joined them properly.
Pale skin and long, silky white hair contrasted with his royal garments that were black as night. Cold eyes stared at Berserker. It was clear Berserker was being viewed as a mere obstacle, to be quantified and then destroyed. No…
"I shall take over. You did intrude upon my lands, dealing an insult to myself and my authority," Vlad, Lancer of Black, spoke up.
"Oh, so you're the king here despite being a Servant," Berserker replied, unbothered by his threat. Tilting his head in thought, he instead continued, "Nope. I don't get you. Get that. To take up that burden once again…Nope. Don't get it. You and I are surely totally incompatible."
"I agree. My enemies and I can never coexist. Nothing more to it than that," Vlad claimed simply, unbothered by Berserker's words. He then threatened darkly, "So I'll be taking care of you now then."
Astolfo decided to use this opportunity. Quickly grabbing his dropped sword and dematerializing his lance, he moved and pat Vlad on the back as he boisterously claimed, "Alright, my king. I'll leave it to you. I need to go pick splinters out of my outfit…I got kicked through an annoyingly large amount of trees." He ended with another glare at Berserker.
"Leave, Rider," Vlad finally cut off any more talk he might come up with, not removing his eyes from the enemy. "You too, Berserker. You've done enough."
Fran growled, but obeyed. Her white dress was stained red in multiple places from multiple cuts she had sustained, even if Berserker had seemed to take some pleasure in kicking them through trees rather than use his swords. Astolfo was not at all reluctant, and took the opportunity to move quickly back to the castle. This would be their best chance to slip out unnoticed, Astolfo and the homunculus who still lacked a name. He'd have preferred if Saber and Archer weren't already engaged to run interference, but what can you do?
The only other reaction to the change of opponent was Berserker. Not from fear, but discontent. With a frown finally replacing his smile, he grunted out, "A shame. We were finally having fun. Interrupting a brawl is just plain annoying, your Majesty."
Ignoring the sarcastic tone Berserker ended with, Vlad drew another spike from one hand as a grander spear appeared in his other one. "I assure you. It won't matter to you for long."
Berserker didn't have any time to respond before he found himself not only under assault from both Lancer personally but also the numerous spikes that appeared from just about everywhere and only appeared to be growing larger in number. Smacking Lancer's spear away, he was forced to bend awkwardly to avoid several different streams of stakes flying at him from several directions. That was enough for Lancer to use his spear to disarm his final blade.
Rather than mourn the loss though, Berserker used his now free hand to grip the length of his opponent's spear. He then held it still with his superior strength, and lashed out with his other fist to try and knock Lancer's block off. However Lancer's superior agility allowed him to dodge easily, and then with another spike from his palm proceeded to stab it upwards into Berserker's bicep.
Grunting in pain, Berserker had to jump backwards to gain some distance. However this time spikes arose from the ground right where he was going to land, and so there was nothing he could do as they pierced his calves. He kept upright despite the force and pain, but was now staked to the ground.
"You live up to your legend as the Lord Impaler, Vlad III," Berserker uttered, uncaring of his impaled arm and legs. Unsurprisingly, as the aura Astolfo had started to sense earlier fully manifested. Berserker's skin turned brown, his black tattoos turned gold, and a visible red aura started flowing off his skin. Ripping the spike out of his arm without care, and then ripping his legs away from the spikes despite the gaping and jagged wounds they left, he then got into a melee fighting stance as he continued, "I prefer matching fists with someone without weapons getting in the way, if at all possible, but I'll gladly use this opportunity to fight the man who held off armies and inspired myths of fear and blood."
Unbothered by the transformation, Lancer only stiffened at his final words before he announced in a voice like ice, "And I will use this opportunity to impale you as a warning to all those who would threaten us. This is my territory, and I shall impale anyone who wants to try and take it from me."
Berserker only frowned though, tilting his head slightly as if listening to something, before saying. "That sucks."
Then he was gone, with but a crack and his lack of presence to show his disappearance.
Vlad scowled, but was unsurprised. Masters can see through their Servants' eyes, and even Berserker's strength and fearlessness would have fallen to Vlad here. Vlad wouldn't have allowed his opponent to flee. A Command Seal to bend time and space to force Berserker's return was the only solution if the enemy wasn't willing to sacrifice him here.
A shame, but unimportant. They would come again. They had to…and he would be here waiting for them when they did.
Moving on, Vlad turned to where he had previously seen a flash of light. Saber's Master had used a Command Seal to force the use of a Noble Phantasm. What madness! For a man who had seemed so determined to keep Saber's identity secret, he had been all too quick to reveal it under pressure. Lancer would need to have a…discussion with Gordes. Vlad couldn't imagine a more magnificent warrior than Siegfried. If Gordes was going to risk Saber's safety or cause more damage by using up valuable Command Seals for trifling matters and revealing his True Name, Vlad would without hesitation force the transfer of Saber's Command Seals to a more fitting Master. Wars could not be won without sacrifices, but priorities had to be maintained in regards to those sacrifices. Vlad would sacrifice a thousand Gordes for but a single Siegfried without hesitation.
Saber was still fighting too, showing the move was wasted effort as well. Archer was supporting, and appeared to be too focused to provide him with updates on the battle. It would probably be too late for him to interfere though, based on the distances.
He'd return to the castle, and give Gordes his warning. That was where Saber would return to.
Siegfried wasn't quite sure what to expect upon his return to Yggdmillennia Castle. A debriefing would have been ideal, where they'd ensure all information gathered today was disseminated to the Servants and Masters. Things seemed too disorganized though, and he soon found why.
Lancer and Darnic, the two leaders of their faction, seemed to be more focused on Siegfried's own master. Seated upon a plush couch, Gordes was however sitting stiff. His hands were gripping his thighs, and his head was lowered to look at the ground rather than the two before him. His face too was a deep red, although whether from shame or anger was unknown.
The two cold leaders noted his appearance calmly. Darnic turned away from Gordes with furious eyes despite his placid expression, looking at Siegfried as he complimented, "Ah, Saber. Be at ease. Despite the…unfortunate incident incited by Gordes here-" This drew a visible tremble from Gordes that was ignored. "-You performed admirably. Truly, only a remarkable Servants could face off against one such as Achilles."
"We must still acknowledge that which we sacrificed here," Lancer interrupted his Master's tendency towards flattery. Lancer was cold as he spoke thoughtfully, "The enemy lost more, but we still lost the advantage of your True Name becoming known. We must reconsider what role you'll play. You are no longer an invincible warrior, but a man with a fatal weakness."
Siegfried nodded, the Command Seal still preventing him from speaking. Everyone had a weakness, but there was a great difference between knowing that and knowing the weakness itself. The enemy Lancer had been able to ascertain that Siegfried could be wounded with enough force. However the nature of Armor of Fafnir meant that just about any attempt to kill Siegfried through brute force would be pointless. It would take an immensely powerful Noble Phantasm to do so. Even an A ranked Noble Phantasm would only be able to inflict injuries he could shake off. Beyond that was a weapon very few Heroic Spirits possessed, and so most would pointlessly attack him until they learned that. Any Servant could kill him if they struck the point on his back though. The enemy would now surely concentrate on achieving that rather than merely throwing stronger and stronger Noble Phantasms at him in hopes of succeeding. All the energy, effort, and information they would have lost from their fruitless attempts was now gone. The enemy efficiency against Siegfried was incomparably boosted.
Darnic soon chimed in while glaring at Gordes again, "Your True Name remaining hidden would have been worth multiple Command Seals, much less using a Command Seal to reveal it. Only luck or a fatally bad matchup with an enemy Servants could have resulted in your defeat. Now…We must at least have someone guarding your back from here on out…Rider is the best choice. He is the only unfettered Servant with a suitable skill set."
Siegfried obviously had no problem with that, but he gained an ill feeling when he saw Darnic's eyes lose focus in a way that spoke of telepathic communication. His face gained an outright bewildered expression after a moment, before he regained control. However he still seemed…confused, even outright baffled if that confusion was showing on his face.
"It appears that Rider, with the homunculus that escaped recently, has tripped several of the traps and boundary fields around the castle," Darnic announced.
Okay, it was easy to understand his confusion now. This wouldn't have made any sense to a magus. Homunculi had too little will to achieve anything on their own, not without outside help, and on top of that they were physically flawed. They would die quick and inevitably. To magi, who typically quantified everything into achievements and successes, they were practically irrelevant beings who achieved nothing and left no lasting impact. A magi would be shocked a homunculus was capable of rebelling at all.
As for Rider. It too made no sense. Why help such a being? He couldn't be attempting to escape. He'd be cut off from his prana supply in such a case, and disappear. Yet trying to save a homunculus was…
No, to a mage such as Darnic there was no sense to this event. Even outright betrayal would have been more understandable to him.
"Gordes. Take Saber and stop them," Darnic quickly ordered, apparently leaving the confusion behind for action.
Gordes was about to protest, likely at the perceived lowliness of the task, but Lancer now cut in with a voice that sent Gordes quailing, "Rider is a Servant. No matter his motives, if he struggles he needs to be restrained. Saber is most suited for that. You meanwhile need to prove you can be trusted. If you can't be, I've already told you what will happen. I'm already considering transferring your remaining Command Seal to the Lady Fiore. She has established a working relationship with Archer well, and is immensely talented. Supplying two Servants also wouldn't be an issue due to the homunculus. So prove you aren't a liability, or else."
Gordes stiffened, both from terror at the threat or indignation over being labeled a 'liability', but nodded and moved quickly out of the room.
And a crucial command went unsaid. That the homunculus should be returned alive for Caster's work. An error that would prove to create many regrets.
Siegfried moved to follow his Master automatically. His mind was elsewhere. They were considering transferring his Command Seals? In truth, he had considered that possibility little. Gordes was a member of Yggdmillennia. Expecting them to turn on him for a Servant was outrageous, but they weren't doing it for Siegfried. They were doing it as Gordes had threatened the war effort.
Did he want that though? While Siegfried had undeniably resented Gordes for his actions so far, he didn't hate him. He merely acknowledged the man had his flaws, like everyone, and that he didn't have particular compatibility with himself. Siegfried knew little of Archer's Master as well, having focused almost entirely on his own and the other Servants. It wouldn't be a practical problem, it was just…
Siegfried found himself dissatisfied with the idea of being…traded.
Siegfried eventually decided to put it to the back of his mind once they left the castle. A more immediate problem was before him. How to handle this situation?
Siegfried saw something from the edge of his eyesight, and turned to look upon Archer. He had clearly similarly learned of Rider's detection, and gained a vantage point to look in the direction Siegfried guessed Rider was. Meeting eyes, Archer merely gave him a shrug that Siegfried translated as him basically urging Siegfried to do his best. That there was nothing he could really do to assist.
Fantastic…Now Siegfried had to figure out how to deal with this situation. He needed to gain the homunculus his freedom, get Rider to return, try to prevent Rider from getting punished, and not do anything that could count as treason in the mind of Lancer. Hearing his Master grumbling under his breath as they covered ground to where no doubt the failing traps and boundary fields indicated Rider and the homunculus were, Siegfried also amended to include preventing his Master from using his final Command Seal.
Gordes had shown himself to be liberal in their use when on edge, and based on the lecture he had just received from Lancer and Darnic he was certainly that at the moment.
Unfortunately, Siegfried didn't have as much time as he hoped to ponder how he could possibly accomplish all these demands. Gordes was moving at his top speed from necessity, and Rider and the homunculus seemed to be moving at a slow pace. Likely due to the physical limitations of the homunculus. Leaving through the back, eastern-gate they quickly reached a river that was part of the defenses of the castle. Gordes however deactivated them, and the two were soon trekking up a steep mountain. As they traveled up, the trail of Rider became clearer-clearly the homunculus was slowing down. The landscape also meant that Siegfried and Gordes were able to get ahead of the two when Gordes had Siegfried pick him up and cross some harsher land that the homunculus had been forced to walk around.
So eventually the two merely waited until Rider and the homunculus-who was forced to lean onto Rider with almost all his weight to keep moving-appeared before them. Sighing deeply, Rider looked at his companion and asked nonchalantly, "Are you sure you're not keeping a secret or two from me? Are you actually a Servant?"
"I don't think so," the homunculus replied in matching confusion. Even Siegfried was a bit unsure on why he had been sent. It was but one homunculus, out of hundreds in the castle. To Yggdmillennia, they were cheap and not worth much effort. One could argue that pursuing the homunculus wasn't even worth the effort or attention. Rider's Master was still fine and possessed her Command Seals, so there was no reason to think he was escaping. Allowing Rider to 'save' a single homunculus was but a trifle if it kept the Servant happy. That should be the thought process, yet here they were.
Gordes however was just annoyed, saying, "We cannot allow this to continue. Return that homunculus, and come back with us, Rider."
"Nope," was Rider's almost instantaneous response. He clearly didn't even have to think about it.
Which unsurprisingly vexed Gordes, who gnashed his teeth and told Siegfried, "Saber, restrain Rider."
Siegfried paused, and briefly closed his eyes as he came to a decision. Opening his mouth, he managed to force out, "N-No…Mas…ter."
"What?!" Rider yelled out, pointing at him with wide eyes. "You just talked! You, the super silent Saber."
Gordes was just as shocked, before reddening as he hissed out, "You dare talk?"
Siegfried didn't react to either reaction. It had been a while for him to get to this point. The thing about Command Seals were that they were limited. Powerful, yes, but still limited in prana. If released in a single burst they could accomplish feats bordering on magic. However other orders they were less efficient in.
Such as the command for Siegfried to not speak. A more clever use of it would have been to rewrite Siegfried's thought process so that he wouldn't even desire to talk. It would have a single change to his mind with a permanent effect. Instead however Gordes had basically used it to power a spell that restrained his ability to speak whenever he desired to do so. However because that spell took power to function, every time it restrained him it drained a portion of the limited power of the Command Seal. So after days of restraining him every time he desired to talk, it had inevitably started to reach its limit. By now, it didn't even have enough power to fully restrain him. He could just push through it.
He had felt it start failing half a day earlier, but had felt little need to push it when they had been preparing for the enemy attack. Now however…he chose to speak. Very fitting, considering this was concurrent with his current desire to disobey Gordes' orders.
"I'm…so…rry…Mas…ter…plea…se…list…en," Siegfried said as he positioned himself between Gordes and the other two.
However Gordes was in no mood to listen to the halting speech Siegfried could force out. "No, I am tired of this." Gordes moved right around Siegfried and grabbed the homunculus without care. Pulled away from the support of Rider, the exhausted homunculus all but collapsed, but Rider and Siegfried now acted despite the overly bold move by Gordes. Rider caught the falling homunculus, and Siegfried grasped Gordes' wrist hard enough that he was forced to release the homunculus.
"Stop, Master," Siegfried spoke smoother-the Command Seal's attempts to prevent him speaking fading to nothing. Gordes gaped, and so he continued, "I'm sorry but if possible, I would ask that you heal this homunculus and let him go."
"What are you saying, Saber?" Gordes spoke in a quivering voice, clearly thrown off by Siegfried speaking. Calming himself, he soon demanded in the strict tone of a Master, "Do not speak nonsense, Saber. Why should I heal and then release it?"
"I speak to your good nature, Master. It would not disadvantage us particularly to grant him salvation," Siegfried spoke, actually relishing the ability to do so. While always taciturn and of few words, having the ability taken from him left him with a greater appreciation now that he could again. "And if that is not enough, I would ask it as a boon for serving you. Surely the cost is worth the satisfaction of both Rider and myself."
"…Shut up…" Gordes mumbled, growing red in pure anger and resentment as he yelled, "Shut up! Shut up shut up shut up! Serving me?! What you've done can't even be called that. You deserve no reward. A familiar deserves no reward for the one who brought it into being. Neither you or Rider, nor that homunculus created through my magecraft have any place to demand something from me. So what place do you have doing so now?"
Rider now stepped forward, standing at Siegfried's side even as he all but help up the homunculus, and declared without hesitation while also facing the familiar probably projecting this to the rest of the Masters and Servants at the castle, "As heroes. We took form in this world at this time for a wish…but that doesn't mean we can just accept whatever happens in that pursuit. We have not forgotten ourselves as heroes. I am Servant Rider…but I am and shall always be one of Charlemagne's paladins, Astolfo! I won't abandon one who was helpless and asked for my aid. I won't. We won't."
Siegfried felt oddly shamed by Astolfo's heartfelt words and feelings. Siegfried…didn't know himself as a hero. All he knew was himself as a wish granting machine, someone who followed the wishes of others as he himself didn't know his own ideals or desires. He felt…no, he knew that he could very easily have found himself on the opposite end of this exchange. It wasn't ideals placing himself on this side, but circumstance.
Gordes' only reaction to the speech was to glare, particularly at Siegfried, with clear enmity.
Siegfried finally just repeated, "Will you save him?"
Instead Gordes growled out harshly, "What 'hero'? You two are not heroes. You are familiars. The real Astolfo died long ago. The real Siegfried died long ago. You two are mere Servants. Shells made through magecraft, and programmed with the data of actual heroes to better serve as familiars. You aren't them. You're shells merely programmed to think you're them, but you aren't. You're just tools to be wielded by living magus."
"As for Servants," Gordes continued his harsh diatribe, now glaring at Siegfried again, "In even that you're a failure. Not even accomplishing the simplest of orders. Forcing me to use Command Seals to order you around, and I'm the one that got blamed…No, you deserve no boons. Neither as heroes nor as Servants."
"And if you will not serve willingly, I shall make you serve regardless."
Siegfried felt himself pale as he felt the third Command Seal started taking effect, flowing through him before he could render Gordes' unconscious.
"Saber, I order you by Command Seal…Kill that homunculus. Then defeat-" Gordes further order to defeat and subdue Rider were abandoned when the similarly paling Rider leapt forward. Punching him in the stomach, the frail looking Servant still had more than enough strength to knock him out.
The damage was done though. If anything, Rider's desperate act had only enhanced it. Maybe if the rest of the order had been said '-Rider, subdue him, and bring him back to the castle' the order would have been widespread enough that Siegfried could have fought it to some degree. Instead, all of the Command Seal's power was focused in one order.
Kill that homunculus.
It was only the homunculus collapsing after losing Rider's support that prevented the thin and small child from being decapitated with Siegfried's first swing of Balmung. The sword came back around, on an arc that would drive it into the ground and split the homunculus in half. This was only stopped by Astolfo all but tackling Siegfried, smartly not even trying to compete with Siegfried in regards to weaponry. Not to mention the time he would have needed to draw or materialize a weapon would have left the homunculus lying in two pieces.
It could be wondered if Astolfo had realized that or whether he had just acted without thought and got lucky.
The flying tackle interrupted Siegfried's blow enough that it dug into the ground right beside the homunculus, but a mere stumble was all that was achieved before Siegfried recovered his balance. It was then simple for the far stronger Siegfried to tear Astolfo off him, and then send him flying.
"Run," Astolfo yelled at the homunculus from where he was sent sprawling.
It was useless though. The homunculus was frozen. Even as Siegfried moved slowly till he was standing over him, so slowly it could almost be viewed as placid. Balmung rose into the air, preparing to come down and cleave the homunculus apart.
This seemed to finally force the homunculus to action, his will to survive shining through when his life was so blatantly in danger. Rolling over, he grabbed at Siegfried's ankle, and whispered, "Straße / gehen (Logic path / open)…"
The contact allowed Siegfried to sense it. The magic circuits heating up enough to harm the homunculus. Prana flowed through both the homunculus and the ankle he gripped. Perceiving the composition of the body part, analyzing it, and seeking to destroy it. The prana changed into the form most suitable to rend flesh and crushing bone. The palm became the barrel of a gun-the sheath of a sword-directing and guiding the destructive force of the spell.
…Of course, it failed. There was no other reasonable option. Not with Armor of Fafnir still in effect. No modern magus could harm Siegfried appreciably, much less the inherent skills of a homunculus casted through the Musik Alchemy magecraft. His thaumaturgy couldn't even hope to compare with a modern magus who properly studied such thaumaturgy, much less a physical defense formed when the Age of Gods still persisted. All that resulted from the attempt was a small explosion that only really harmed the homunculus.
It did however force Siegfried to pause for a moment. The Command Spell only throwing another wrench in the battle instincts that was meant to guide Siegfried to either withdraw or counter, in this case leaving him frozen. An opportunity Astolfo used.
"Trap of Argalia: Down with a Touch," Astolfo yelled, once again materializing his lance but a moment before contact. All Siegfried did was tilt an elbow to block the point of the lance, his defense not allowing the lance to even scratch his skin, but it mattered little. The Noble Phantasm of Astolfo did not need to inflict a wound, or even hit the opponent's leg. Its effect operated on different principles, and so Siegfried found himself suddenly tilting as one half of his base disappeared with his lower leg. This was combined with yet another tackle by Astolfo, which with his surprising strength and Siegfried's complete lack of balance finally allowed him to send Siegfried flying.
Rather than push his advantage, Astolfo crouched at the side of the homunculus. The failed spell had certainly harmed the one casting it in this case. Still with a weak body not capable of handling his first class magic circuits, the attempt let his entire body shivering from the damaged flesh and nerves around every magic circuit.
Seeing the complete inability of the homunculus to realistically flee under his own power, Astolfo looked to the side where Siegfried had been sent flying. It was…honestly quite terrifying. Siegfried was crawling towards him at quite a speed, the Command Seal clearly caring little in his missing lower leg and continued to force him to move to kill the homunculus. Siegfried's green eyes were blank, but the intent to kill was palpable. Like a guillotine. There was no feeling, just the inescapable intent of a tool created to kill.
It was more than enough to tell Astolfo they needed to get out of there. Even without a leg, Astolfo had little confidence-nor the desire-in being able to kill the-now revealed-invincible Siegfried. Crouching down, he picked the homunculus up before running away from the too close Siegfried before yelling, "I know you didn't want to, but there is no choice. Hippogriff, come!"
With that, Astolfo's most famous mount appeared in a release of golden light. The impossible mix of griffin and mare that was the legendary Hippogriff was made real. The phantasmal beast that had the front half of an eagle and the back half of a horse.
Quickly reaching its side, Astolfo pushed the slumped over and only partially conscious form of the homunculus onto its back. It was annoyingly difficult, and deadly slow in that Siegfried was once against gaining now that he had stopped running away. It would have been better in the short term to just run on foot, but once Siegfried's leg regenerated that would not be so. While Siegfried's legendarily bad luck meant Argalia would stay in effect longer than it had Berserker earlier, it would end. The hippogriff was their only chance to outrace him overall, and this moment of weakness was the sole chance they had to mount it.
Finally getting the homunculus on, Astolfo quickly mounted behind him. Holding him in place, he then called out, "Go, Hippogriff. Away, now."
The hippogriff moved immediately, gaining elevation and speed at a thoroughly unnatural pace suited for a phantasmal beast that defied modern logic.
It wasn't fast enough though. Astolfo immediately sensed something wrong with his mount. There was too much weight and the mount was thrashing around. Astolfo looked down below with a sinking heart, soon confirming his fear.
Siegfried had managed to reach out and grip one of the hippogriff's back legs right before it flew off, and was now dangling below them. Balmung clenched in one hand, the other holding him up, and one leg still missing. Astolfo then watched as Siegfried lifted himself up partially with one hand to swing Balmung into the backside of the hippogriff.
Squawking at the pain, the mount started bucking so badly even Astolfo was barely holding on. It was even worse for Siegfried, who found himself being kicked repeatedly with the other back horse leg of the beast he had hitched a ride on and attacked. A hoof repeatedly slammed into him, only the raised arm holding Balmung protecting his head. That alongside Armor of Fafnir was enough though, and another slash with Balmung opened up the kicking leg. Shrieking and screeching even more at the pain of the intruder's attack, the hippogriff moved once again without Astolfo's permission. Bending into a ball, the hippogriff used its front legs-the talons of an eagle, to attack Siegfried. One talon grabbed Siegfried's arm in a tight grip, while the other lashed out in an attempt to scratch out Siegfried's eyes, face, neck, and just everywhere it could reach. To no effect, Armor of Fafnir protecting him successfully even from the attack of a phantasmal beast. He instead continued lashing out with Balmung, cutting the hippogriff's legs and stomach.
This impromptu midair battle of course rendered riding the hippogriff troublesome, to say the least. Desperately holding on to both beast and his helpless passenger, Astolfo was all but crying as the hippogriff started descending from its inability to focus on flying.
"Waaaah! You stupid bird!" Astolfo squealed when it became clear the hippogriff was outright descending. It wasn't even falling anymore. It was now purposefully diving down, holding Siegfried in place for what was clearly an attempt to smash Siegfried into the ground at full charge speed.
Mount or not, Siegfried's attack seemingly made it forget the riders on its back.
"This is gonna hurt," Astolfo groaned out before jumping off the hippogriff before it smashed into the ground, trying to counterattack the current momentum by jumping in the opposite direction right before impact. Astolfo then spun in midair, clutching the homunculus to his chest while repositioning them so his back would hit the ground first. Several tress were in the way-man, just how many trees had he gone through today?-slowing them down moderately before his back finally smashed into the ground. Skipping on the ground several times, he still managed to keep the homunculus from taking the direct impact of their landing. Eventually final coming to a halt, Astolfo let out a groan before muttering, "Yep…it hurt."
Taking several moments to gather himself and allow the pain in his back to fade, Astolfo looked at the homunculus he was still clutching. The weak figure was clearly entirely unconscious by this point, but Astolfo didn't see anything to indicate fatal damage. He'd definitely be needing medical attention though.
Astolfo placed him on the ground softly before looking to survey the damage of the crash between his hippogriff and Siegfried. A great gouge was in the earth, the impact gouging a long scar and sending up a great cloud of smoke and debris that partially covered the result. The hippogriff's full charge attack had the impact of an A ranked physical attack. To then smash into the ground like that could only result in such devastation.
Now was that enough to put down the invincible Siegfried? That was less certain.
So Astolfo was forced to wait. The homunculus was in too bad of shape to move, at least except to an area where immediate medical care could be assumed. That suicide attack would also sideline his Hippogriff for a time till it could heal in the Reverse Side of the World. He had little choice right now.
Which only made it worse when Astolfo spotted Siegfried's figure walking through the cloud of dust towards him. Slow and measured, every step made Astolfo's heart plunge deeper into his stomach. Once Siegfried exited the cloud, Astolfo was able to see his state. Some of his armor was torn off, but actual damage on Siegfried himself appeared minor at best.
Even an attack like that, from a phantasmal beast, was only capable of that.
Truly, this was a man who killed a far fiercer phantasmal beast, a great dragon, when he was still but a human without supernatural gifts. Only with that sword in hand. Even a hippogriff could only do so much.
Astolfo wasn't going to let that stop him from trying though. If his hippogriff failed, he'd try something else. Even if Argalia failed, he'd keep trying. Not until his own life was spent would he stop trying. Not only for the homunculus, but also for Siegfried. Astolfo just knew, without ever having a single proper conversation with him, that his once silent friend being forced to kill the homunculus would just be too cruel.
"La Black Luna: Magic Flute that Calls Panic," Astolfo called out, gripping the small hunting horn that was yet another of his noble phantasms. Gripping the small magic horn in one hand, it then faded and was replaced by a far larger horn that wrapped around his body. Taking a deep breath, he then blew it. A vicious sound like that of a roar of a dragon, screech of an giant eagle, and neighing of a divine horse rang out in a glowing white wave of destructive sound.
This blast smashed into Siegfried, only for him to not even have a hitch in his step in response. He just continued on, the C ranked Noble Phantasm doing nothing besides numbing his hearing. Like an unstoppable force, he tore through such flimsy obstacles put before him.
Refusing to give up, Astolfo drew his sword and tried to attack that way. That was an even worse failure. Siegfried's swordsmanship was far beyond his own, and his superior physical parameters only widened the gap. It took but a single exchange for Astolfo's sword to be sent flying through the air. He was able to back up due to Siegfried's empty eyes being fixed purely on the homunculus. Astolfo was clearly no different from a tree standing in his way. A minor obstacle to be circumvented. Not even regarded as a threat.
Still not giving up, Astolfo materialized his lance in the midst of another thrust. That trick had already been used though, and Siegfried's free hand caught it behind the tip in his grip. He didn't even deign to pause in his pace. He kept walking, even as Astolfo tried to use the lance to push him back. His hand grasping it didn't budge, and every step he took forced Astolfo back-his heels digging small trenches in the ground. The gap in strength between them was just too wide.
Still not giving up even as Astolfo's heels touched the unconscious homunculi, he dematerialized the lance and crouched onto the ground. Grabbing a handful of dirt, Astolfo threw it right into the eyes of Siegfried. Finally, this appeared to have an effect. Siegfried paused, his free arm rising to shield his eyes. Using that opportunity, Astolfo tackled Siegfried around his waist. Rather than try to knock him back though, he grabbed Siegfried around the back of the ankles and actually lifted him up-even the strongest and most durable Servant still weighed but a trifle to any Servant. Picking him up over his shoulder, Astolfo shot forward-physically carrying Siegfried away to create distance from the homunculus.
This success lasted but an instant. Balmung lashed out, cutting the back of Astolfo's calf. Crying out as he stumbled, Astolfo was then subjected to a brutal hammer blow to his back. Involuntarily bending forward as he couldn't help but cough, and that unfortunately put Siegfried back on his feet. A knee crashed into Astolfo's face, splitting his lip and sending him reeling. That was actually his only saving grace, already falling back as Balmung swung. Astolfo avoided the worst of it by falling back, but still found his torso marred by a long and thin slice.
Falling back with a hiss of pain from the wound, Astolfo looked up at the intimidating form of Siegfried above him. Crawling away like a crab, he soon flipped and ran on all fours to the homunculus. Throwing himself over the body of the homunculi-even Astolfo's androgynous form was sufficient to completely cover the short and thin boy beneath him-he then turned his head towards Siegfried and yelled defiantly, "I won't let you. You won't get him. Not unless you kill me first."
That caused Siegfried to pause as he raised Balmung, but only for a moment. Then the sword flashed downwards. Siegfried clearly intended to stab through Astolfo to reach the homunculi underneath him, after hearing that declaration.
It halted but an inch from Astolfo's torso.
"Good to see you back, Saber," Astolfo said with a grin, having not even bothered to close his eyes as the sword descended. He had only stared directly into Siegfried's blank eyes.
Or, previously blank eyes. The light had returned to them. The Command Seal, with but a limited amount of prana, had clearly already drained itself from forcing his previous actions.
Yep, Astolfo would choose luck over genius any day.
Despite the lucky break and Astolfo's remaining cheerfulness in face of the chase he had just endured, Siegfried was clearly not so unfazed. He backed away, eyes wide as he breathed deeply in what could only be panic. Rattled, he looked at Balmung and his own hands with disbelieving eyes. He then looked at Rider's bleeding mouth, ruined clothes, and the cut on his chest with guilt and horror.
Astolfo realized what was about to happen just a moment too late to interfere.
Siegfried turned…and fled.
"Wait, Siegfried," Astolfo cried out as he forced himself to stand back up. However his condition meant Siegfried had already streaked away at high speed to leave Astolfo behind. Astolfo had the urge to follow, but turned towards the unconscious homunculus with a grimace. He couldn't be left alone. Finally collapsing to his knees, Astolfo groaned out, "Wah, why did it turn out this way?
Astolfo received no answer, and so was forced to just wait till help arrived while keeping watch on the homunculus. Others had to have been sent once they saw Gordes issue that damnable command through their familiars…Maybe Astolfo should have had the hippogriff fly towards the castle, rather than away. All he'd done was create more distance from reinforcements that could have potentially helped subdue Siegfried.
Thankfully, it only took several minutes for Archer to arrive. Astolfo chuckled ruefully before commenting, "A sight for sore eyes, Chiron. What I wouldn't have given to have you here earlier?"
"Don't say my True Name, Rider," Archer replied automatically despite knowing the probable futility of the request. He instead crouched down by the homunculus, lightly touching different areas of his body while also taking a number of things like his pulse, temperature, checking his pupils, etc. Finally he deigned to inform Astolfo, "Remarkably, he'll recover. The internal bleeding and organ damage has started healing. Exhaustion might be a more serious issue now. For all that he is weak as a newborn, his body is displaying a superior healing capability. It might be an intrinsic form of magecraft. As an artificial being, he was 'programmed' complete. Through the alchemy inherent to his being, his body appears to be subconsciously using magecraft to counter any damage to that state…He truly is unique. Some flaw or mutation in his creation must have allowed an uncommon adaptation or growth potential. This use of magecraft is further damaging the flesh around his magic circuits, but less so than his use of proper magecraft as it is recovering at the same time. When complete, he'll probably be able to use proper magecraft without harm. He's still fragile though. This healing is too little if he had accrued more serious injuries. Good job protecting him, Rider."
Letting out a relieved sigh at that news, Astolfo turned to where Siegfried had disappeared and added, "Siegfried ran away. Which of us should go get him?"
That made Archer shift awkwardly, before he admitted, "I saw his behavior once the Command Seal wore off…I don't think Saber would welcome either of us pursuing him. Or anyone of our faction."
"…Wait," Astolfo asked with wide eyes. "Are you thinking he…deserted? I just thought he needed time!"
"The line between the two can be blurred at time," Archer commented, still subdued himself. "When it comes down to it, these camps are artificial creations. We are not united by country, philosophy, or gods, but from chance in who we were summoned by. By this point, tis clear that of all our current members Siegfried was the one with the most misfortune in Masters. Gordes…has potential, but certainly is entirely incompatible with Siegfried. The relationship between those two would almost certainly end in tragedy, in some fashion, and if Gordes is a member of Yggdmillennia than the question of Saber remaining a Servant of Yggdmillennia becomes muddled."
"But he still needs prana," Astolfo muttered. Despite aiding the homunculus, he hadn't even considered attempting to leave the faction entirely.
"He might not even be considering such things…or he has been faced with a line he will not cross. Even if that means disappearing and achieving nothing," Archer wondered aloud, before continuing, "We must move though. We know not what Saber is thinking. He might return. For now we must return, get the homunculus to safety, and pacify Lancer."
Archer carefully picked up the homunculus in a way as to not jolt his body before moving with the weight like it was nothing. Astolfo moved to follow. For once he was silent.
The mediator of the Great Holy Grail War chosen by the Grail itself-Ruler, the Saint of Orleans Jeanne d'Arc carefully crouched down to inspect the battlefield. A combination of her skills as a Ruler class Servant, information fed to her by the Grail itself, and revelations from her status as a Saint allowed her to gain a picture of the events that had occurred far beyond what even the most magnificent tracker could manage. This she used to bear witness of the events that had passed in the Grail War, even if retroactively.
She allowed herself to follow the trail of battle, focusing first on where Berserker of Red faced off against both Rider of Black and Berserker of Black. A great many trees were destroyed, but a manageable amount. Berserker had forced the Black Servants back, but had become wounded. Hit with a weak Noble Phantasm. He had returned stronger though, only to be blocked by the appearance of Lancer of Black. Those two skirmished, only to flee by Command Seal.
Jeanne nodded in satisfaction as she tracked the events. She had no complaints. The damage was limited, and there were no rules against teaming up against opposing Servants. It was a fair fight, in terms of following the framework of the war itself.
"A normal battle."
With that declaration, she moved on to the more worrying battle. The battlefield of Saber of Black and Rider of Red. The power of these two Servants was tremendous. Rider of Red was a great and famous hero. He rivaled Lancer of Red, who had already fought Saber of Black in a tremendous bout. This bout was clearly the equal of that. Her skills as a Ruler providing her their True Names clearly illustrated the frustration of their bout. Two invincible warriors clashing.
Yet there was interference. Archer of Red had altered that balance. Jeanne moved to follow the trail of shattered of sliced trees. Saber had sought to close with the enemy Archer, but Rider prevented that. Coming to a section of the forest that had been completely leveled, it didn't take much for her to ascertain that a Command Seal had forced the use of Saber's Noble Phantasm. A useless effort, based on Rider of Red's protection.
But not pointless. It took her several moments of concentration to determine the source of Rider's divine protection being shattered. Archer of Black had stepped in, and luck and coincidence had deemed it a great blow. Afterwards Saber and Rider clashed, with their respective Archers supporting them. This was until Rider fled upon his mount.
This was a fiercer battlefield, the damage to the forest made her wince, but it was still entirely legal by the rules. Saber and Rider clashed, Archers supported their comrades, and eventually the two sides disengaged. It was merely that the power of them was tremendous.
She should prepare herself for this. It was entirely possible all fourteen Servants could clash nearby. While preferably outside Trifas, and Ruler could probably minimize the damage through use of her privilege, such a clash was within the framework of the war.
There weren't any suspicious factors here…besides the lack of any Masters. This wasn't a total surprise. The Masters of Black were holed up in their fortress, and it was reasonable the Masters of Red would behave as magi and hold themselves back from the danger of the battlefields. She hadn't forgotten the attempt by Lancer of Red to eliminate her, but she knew that Lancer of Red possessed a pure and noble character. He would not have attacked her, and so the only reasonable assumption was that he was ordered to. Yet so far she had failed to meet or sense any of the Masters of Red.
An uneasy feeling was present in her stomach. Several factors of her summoning were odd. She shouldn't have needed to possess the body of Laeticia. Several of her powers as Ruler were also functioning improperly.
Something was wrong with this Holy Grail War, beyond its scope, and she needed to figure out just what. Otherwise she knew something would go wrong. For now she would simply fulfill her duties as moderator, while following any clues she could discover.
With that in mind she looked east, where she could sense another clash had occurred. Her feelings told her this one was more complicated, and meaningful. Perhaps insight could be found there.
Such insight was not found.
"This…was not a normal battle," she whispered with a frown. "An internal conflict?"
It quickly became clear that no Red Servants had been present. No, only Saber and Rider of Black. Saber's Master as well.
Wait, no. There was another. Not related to the Holy Grail War?
No. They were?
…She wasn't sure. Her powers as Ruler were unclear, which they should not be for either Masters or Servants. Yet her gut indicated the person was indeed related in some way.
Moving on, she sensed the use of a Command Seal. Ah, that was the cause. Saber of Black was ordered to do something, and Rider of Black fought him. Jeanne quickly followed the path she could sense the mount of Rider of Black took them. Saber of Black interfered, bringing them down. The great scar in the ground made the impromptu landing spot clear. She quickly moved to where Rider utilized several more Noble Phantasms, to no effect.
The Command Seal had worn off before Rider was eliminated, but it appears they split up here. Rider stayed with the unknown person, until Archer of Black arrived and they left. Saber of Black moved further from Yggdmillennia Castle though. Did he run?
Here Ruler felt unsure of how to proceed. No rules had been broken from what she could tell. The unknown party was worrying, but not in the same way as her feeling that something was wrong with the war. Simply an unknown factor that might become important. Not the source of her dread.
And Jeanne, not as a Ruler but as a Saint, could feel that Saber of Black had a part to play. Her Revelation skill was not something that could be explained. All it did was give her insight to the fulfilling of goals or objectives. Her objective in this war was the fulfillment of her duties as Ruler, and identifying and handling the source of the issues that were prevalent in the war so far-even if minor. Somehow, Saber had a part to play in that.
Was he involved or did he know something? Unlikely. He was recently summoned, and the Black faction appeared to be operating by the rules of the war so far despite their possessing of the Greater Grail.
Yet her Revelation was clear. It was a power from the divine, coming from the soul itself. She could not deny it.
Saber of Black-Siegfried-had a part to play in this war. Whether big or small, it would be decisive nonetheless. His fate was one of the hinges upon which this war rotated, which meant it was something she had to pay attention to even if she knew not how.
Just the thought of more work made her body slump. Ugh, it appeared she was 'sleepy'. Or at least, Laeticia's body was sleepy.
Servants weren't able to sleep, or at least, didn't -require- sleep. This wasn't a particularly displeasing demand to Jeanne, the 'normal' urge was surprisingly refreshing to her. However it was undeniably restrictive. She-meaning Laeticia-hadn't slept for two days. Jeanne had possessed her-with Leticia's permission-during her nightly prayers before she went to bed. Jeanne had then immediately set off after using Charisma to persuade her roommates and teachers that she 'had to go do something'. She had ridden a plane through the night to Romania from France, and had hitched a ride in the bed of an old truck to Trifas that had taken all day. Then after that incident with Lancer of Red, she had sought refuge. Eventually coming to a small church where the Sister was willing to allow her to sleep in the attic. Then after but a quick meal, she had set off to mediate the war that left her here halfway through the night. That meant Laeticia hadn't slept in near two days, something she clearly wasn't physically used to.
Jeanne also felt her stomach rumble at the brief thought of a meal. She was hungry too, now. This too was an effect of her incomplete summoning. Servants typically required prana to sustain the body they received created through magecraft. Jeanne didn't have that issue, having a physical body, but she did still require prana. As she was possessing the body of a normal girl, prana was utilized to close the gap in physical capabilities. To enhance Laeticia's body to sufficient levels for Jeanne to function as a Servant. This however strained and stressed the body. A physical, flesh and blood body simply couldn't operate at such high levels without consuming a great amount of calories. Thus, Jeanne had to still eat.
If Jeanne failed to get enough sleep and eat enough, she would collapse. It was simply not something she could deal with through willpower. If she ignored it too long and kept pushing through, she'd simply collapse.
She was dealing with the demands of both a Servant and a human inside one body. She needed to return to town and the bed in the attic there. That was what her body was telling her.
Not yet though. She still had more to do. She needed to get a clearer picture of what happened. She also couldn't search aimlessly. God helped those who helped themselves. No, questioning those involved was simply more constructive. Rider of Black and the unknown party had returned to Yggdmillennia Castle. The Black Faction had already showed an intent to bring her to their side, and so would at least try to talk to her unlike the Red Faction.
However her gut, as Jeanne D'Arc, instead pointed her elsewhere. Saber of Black could provide just as much information, and she could also ascertain his current status and thoughts in not returning to his faction's base of operation. Betrayal or even changing sides was not against the rules, but Saber of Black potentially siding with the as of yet suspicious Red faction would be…worrying.
Mind made up, she used one of her skills as Ruler to use some holy water cast into the air to locate all nearby Servants. Five Servants were in the castle, naturally, but Saber of Black was missing. Frowning, she widened the radius of the detection to a ten kilometer radius. This finally allowed her to locate Saber of Black, who appeared to have come to a stop at the top of one of the nearby mountains.
He was painfully far, for her current state. She leaned against a tree from the iredness now eating at her, but she couldn't stop. Raising a hand, she reluctantly punched herself in the face hard enough for the pain to clear her mind. She'd still lose consciousness like a switch being cut if she pushed too far, but she couldn't allow herself to quit now.
She just knew that this night, what happened, what could happen, and what will happen were of great importance.
That feeling was what drove her as she set up the mountain towards Saber of Black.
Chiron could only sigh as he watched Rider be removed from the throne room, the stakes of Lancer impaling his arms and legs while several specialized golems of Caster that could take liquid form trapped him in magically enhanced stone.
He wasn't sure if he had even expected anything differently. Pure and heroic as Rider was, this came at the cost of a complete lack of tack and thought. In regards to Lancer, the two had a dismal compatibility as king and subordinate.
After arriving back, Archer had no choice but to bring Rider before Lancer to answer for the vents that happened. Rider had been…far too honest in regards to his attempt to aid the homunculus. Oh, he had refrained from exposing Archer's own contributions. However he had spoken without even a hint of regret, despite the spiral of events. Unashamedly admitting his assistance to the homunculus, and when Darnic had pointed out how it turned out he had shrugged before claiming with a shrug, 'That's a totally different thing, right? Saving him was my choice. Everything else was a result of different choices by other people.'
It had actually been a decent deflection of blame, even if Archer doubted Rider had meant it as so. Gordes had immediately been confined after Caster's golems had brought him back. Even if they had failed to order him to bring back the homunculus alive, his actions were completely unacceptable. Using the last Command Seal broke the very basis of Saber's loyalty to them, leaving nothing to tie him to them. Using the Seal in such a way then gave him ample reason to leave the faction.
No. Gordes might not be able to be punished per say, his magecraft was still required for the other homunculus, but he had showed his value in this war. With Saber gone, that value was none.
That hadn't of course stopped Lancer's fury over Rider's actions and behavior, leading to the punishment. Complete confinement, only to be released to fight. In essence, he had been rendered a pawn moving forward. To be restricted to moves by the king…and sacrificed in the name of preserving more valuable pieces.
"What are your thoughts, Archer?" Lancer asked. Even a child could feel the foul mood engulfing the king of their faction. Archer knew he had to move carefully. Lancer valued his input greatly, yes, but he was a man who would give anything-sacrifice anyone-if it meant victory. Lancer waved his wand as he elaborated, "All this trouble…over a single homunculus. Rider's insolence. Gordes' foolishness. Saber's flight."
Archer stayed silent for several moments, gathering his thoughts and arranging them into the fashion most likely to appease Lancer, before announcing, "Unfortunate, but salvageable."
"Oh," Lancer turned to now look at him with a raised eyebrow, interested, "And just what would we be salvaging, and how?"
"Potentially nothing. Potentially everything," Archer replied. "The homunculus was the source of this…incident. It is through him that we could counter the repercussions…I recommend we grant him sanctuary, free from the place of the other homunculi."
Said homunculus wasn't present. Unconscious, he would have been but an obstacle in the affair. Archer had put him in an empty room. He didn't need any aid. He'd heal on his own by this point.
"And just why…should we do that? It's just a homunculus. One who has already cost us much," Darnic interrupted.
Looking at Lancer's Master and head of the Yggdmillennia Clan, Archer explained, "Rider sought to assist this homunculus. His actions and feelings might have been foolish, but not outright treasonous. He sought not to betray or leave our force. Saber too seems to have had similar intentions. Not betrayal, but the desire to save one homunculus. Rider did declare as such, and Saber asked that the homunculus be granted salvation as a boon. Denying that boon could arguably be considered the root of this incident. It costs us but little, to save the life of but one homunculus, and such mercy could be crucial in healing any such rifts this incident have caused with Rider and Saber."
"This homunculus has value beyond its life," Caster interrupted from where he had silently been listening until this point. Looking at Darnic, he added, "This homunculus is a candidate to serve as the core of my Noble Phantasm. One of the few candidates."
Archer frowned at that. He had suspected the homunculus had some unknown value to Caster. Only that would explain Caster's fixation on recovering him. It had been why he had acceded to Rider's escape plan, despite being unlikely to succeed. He had feared that Caster would move soon. The homunculus couldn't have left the castle so it was only a matter of time before Caster swept every room to find him. Even Archer's.
Lancer raised a hand, stopping any argument from breaking out. Looking at Archer, he asked seriously, "Do you believe saving this homunculus could allow us to…reassure Saber and convince his return?"
Lancer had immediately recognized Siegfried's intent, after he recovered from the Command Seal. The expression Lancer had seen through a familiar was one he had seen often in life. He was after all well used to betrayal and desertion, having fought the overwhelming Ottomans with no chance of victory.
It still troubled him. Siegfried's eyes hadn't been that of betrayal or cowardice, of which Lancer was used to. It had been of self-hatred, of which he was just as used to. Many of his soldiers had suffered it. Those who had willingly followed him in committing atrocities as a warning to the Ottomans. To force them to feel fear, in spite of their might. Men who had helped him impale hundreds and thousands would occasionally just…break. They'd look at their hands, and only be able to see the blood. The horrors they had committed, and not that which they were protecting in the process. He had always found these deserters the hardest to deal with. Traitors and cowards deserved every punishment he could inflict. These men though…He had felt regret.
He had simply rationalized it as a difference in strength. The difference between heroes and the broken of the battlefield. Heroes were those with the strength and will to continue.
It was this very belief that now failed him. Saber had been a warrior without peer. Lancer had surely never found the man's equal in life and could scarcely imagine it still. A man who killed a great dragon with no gifts but the sword in his hand, and then become one of the few warriors to earn the title of 'Invincible'.
Yet, he had broken. How could such a hero break? He couldn't understand it.
He would find no answers, and he wasn't sure whether it mattered. Despite his previous beliefs over strength being that which had separated the heroes from the broken, it clearly didn't apply in this case. The strength of Saber-of Siegfried-was undeniable. Regaining that strength was more important than understanding what happened.
If Archer could offer insight or hope of doing just that, he had no choice but to listen.
Archer however carefully replied, "I believe any hope of convincing Saber to return is dependent upon the survival of the homunculus. Thus as I stated earlier, protecting him is my recommendation for the moment."
Lancer gave him a look that told Archer he might be suspicious of his part in this. That Archer's own position here was not unknown to his king. However he was relieved when Vlad nodded and said, "I shall allow this…for the moment."
"Understood, your Majesty," Archer said with a graceful bow. He then moved to leave while continuing, "Shall I go inform Rider of this boon?"
A wave of Lancer's hand was his dismissal. He quickly left the room.
Lancer watched him go. Waiting a minute longer in silence without dismissing either Darnic or Caster, he finally spoke when he was sure Archer was out of hearing range, "Caster. The homunculus shall not be touched at the moment. Ensure your Noble Phantasm is ready. Depending on how the situation develops, I might change my mind in the future."
This was far from the first case of priority and sacrifice that Lancer had been forced to deal with. Lancer had little patience himself for one homunculus that had already caused undue grief and concern, but a basic of being king was understanding that the priorities of others might not align with your own. Lancer had failed in indulging in that in life, with the result being his imprisonment. This homunculus was directly best utilized by becoming the core of Caster's Noble Phantasm, but indirectly could prove crucial in keeping the allegiance in Rider, Saber, and potentially Archer. That meant the latter took priority, at least until it failed to deliver or the time came where the support of Caster's Noble Phantasm became critical.
Lancer would not lose this chance because of one homunculus, and those who valued one homunculus more than the Holy Grail.
Any dissatisfaction Caster might have felt at the delay to receiving the core he needed was assuaged with that. He was willing to be patient, if it meant bringing forth his masterpiece. His Adam.
And if Lancer didn't change his mind…well, he had plans for that scenario too.
Archer passed by the clearly dissatisfied Celenike as he approached Rider's current cell. Her feelings weren't a surprise. Not only a person filled with ill feelings in general, but she had also come under scrutiny from this event. While not as much as Gordes, there was no denying now that she utterly lacked control over Rider beyond the Command Seals she still possessed.
Choosing to ignore her, Archer instead looked upon the imprisoned Rider as he entered the cell. He then immediately preempted Rider by telling him, "I must apologize, Rider. If I had intervened, it wouldn't have come to this."
"No, no," Rider easily refuted. "There's no reason to split our faction apart further for a trivial thing like this. I was scolded and received punishment for this incident. I might not believe I was wrong or that I am responsible, but I can understand the need for someone to be punished. If this is enough to end the matter, I don't mind at all."
Impressed by Rider's nonchalance over the brutal punishment of basically be crucified by Lancer, imprisoned, and made into a mere pawn to use as is most convenient for the faction, Archer decided to lift his spirits by telling him the good news, "At least rest knowing that Lancer has decided to spare the homunculus for the moment. I would not expect such mercy to last long, or if sacrificing him would become necessary, but it at least gives us time to come to a more permanent solution."
"That's great. Although there's not much I can do from here. Maybe I'll be like a tree-I turned into a tree once. Very calm and peaceful, plus the squirrels, birds, and deer don't hesitate to come right up to you-If I can get like that again I might be able to think of something. Probably shouldn't rely on me though. All the other Paladins knew that no one was as reckless as me!"
Chuckling at the rapid speech and claims, Archer calmly claimed, "I shall consider, but it might not be planning that preserves us or the homunculus, but luck and an ability to adapt to whatever comes."
"Cool, that I can do," Rider said with a nod. However he then stared at Archer intently before asking, "Ho, why are you going so far as to help him, Archer?"
Archer only smiled before answering honestly and gently, "We are only transient existences without flesh. It would be nice if there was but a single being that we etched onto the world. A single life that was saved…as proof that we were here."
Rider only looked at him with wide eyes. He then lowered his head and whispered something dangerous, "I wish you had been our king."
"I'm not suited to such a role. I'm better as a teacher or advisor. That I know," Archer admitted with a bitter smile.
Rider chose not to debate that. Instead he kept his eyes fixed on the ground. If anything, his mood finally appeared gloomy, fitting with his surroundings.
"Hey, Archer…Do you think Saber will be all right?"
"…For the moment," Archer said. "Lancer chose not to cut off his prana supply immediately. We'll track him down later in the morning, preferably negotiate his return. If we don't succeed in that, we must plan how to best adapt to Saber's absence."
"No, not that," Rider quickly amended before elaborating, "If he chooses to disappear, well…that's his choice. It would not be my responsibility."
That…was actually surprising. Archer had imagined Saber and Rider were closer than that…although, maybe it was exactly because they were close. Rider acted how he wanted, when he wanted. He might be affectionate, pushy, and effusive, but if Saber's own will was to disappear…Rider might not understand, but he would not deny him that right.
"It's just…do you think he's okay? If he ran…why did he run? I always thought he was a calm and kinda boring guy, but…" Rider continued gloomily.
"I can't claim to know Saber, not having had a single conversation with him. However I do know this," Chiron said. He might not have talked to Saber, but he was not without his ways of deduction. The wisdom granted to him by the Greek gods. His Clairvoyance. His lifetime of training heroes of all types. "There are many types of heroes. There are those like me, those born in circumstances that demanded a spectacular life. There are those like you, whom possess a spirit to where walking the path of a hero is only natural. The only path you could ever walk…Then there are those like Siegfried. To some, titles like 'hero' 'king' or 'savior' are not descriptions or titles, but idealized roles. They discard their own humanity to uphold these ideals and live those roles…It can only end in regret and tragedy. We are but imperfect beings. Even those who no longer are human will never act or behave perfectly. They will always fail in the end. The gap between them as a person and the idealized hopes they hope to fulfill will always be wide, causing disappointment at the end. The greater the 'hero' or 'king', the greater the disappointment."
"For Siegfried, whom 'hero' so perfectly describes, this must be agony. He was never defeated. Never showed a shameful figure. Yet his story is full of failure and regret. For him, the gap between himself as a person and himself as a hero is immense. Too far to cross…no, I feel maybe it is too far for himself to even see the other side anymore," Archer spoke gravely. "Even worse, I fear Siegfried doesn't even know himself well enough to recognize this gap in his heart. Or at least, understand it and its cause. He seeks a glimpse of the truth…the truth of his own being. If he got that glimpse, he might be satisfied. He might be able to disappear from this life with a smile…Or he might only feel shame. We are imperfect beings. Complex beings. Filled with both good and bad. With but a glimpse he would see only part of himself. Considering what happened, I believe he was once again made aware of his failures and weaknesses. It is not unexpected he would flee."
Archer smiled softly here though, as he claimed earnest, "But Siegfried is strong. He might flee now, but he became a hero for a reason. Even if he lost his way. If he gets the smallest bit of wisdom from seeing his own weakness and failures, he will surely find more of himself. Even if he seeks the truth of himself, peace will only truly come to him if he can bridge that gap in his heart. If he can reconcile himself as both a hero and a person. Learn from his failures and become better for it, not as a hero but as a person. Only through this will he also grow as a hero."
"So deep. I don't get it," Astolfo moaned out with a pout. He then turned sad against as he admitted, "Is it wrong that all I can think of is that I'm lonely now that Saber's gone?"
Archer laughed loudly at that, earnestly and without hesitation. He then pat Astolfo's head as he commented, "You truly are a good person, Astolfo of Charlemagne's Paladins."
Astolfo was crucified. He was imprisoned. He had been rendered a disposable pawn by his faction.
And what he felt was sadness over a comrade no longer being at his side.
Although he didn't understand Archer's enjoyment, "Moh, don't tease me, Chiron."
"I'm not. Honest," Archer told him before continuing with a smile, "If you should see him again, you should tell him you were lonely without him around. It might sound unimportant, but the meaning behind it…It will matter to him, I think."
It was a harsh journey for Ruler. Her breathing was rough. Her vision swam. Each step she took exhausted her stamina.
Yet she continued. She prayed she would catch up with Saber of Black as she ascended the mountain. She begged her body, 'Just endure it a little longer.'
Her body-no, Laeticia's body-was still failing though. She was losing control of her body even as her mind remained determined. Her physical form had finally broke through the limits of its ability to keep moving. All but stumbling, it was only the force of will suited to a Saint that kept her moving.
Why was she going through so much trouble?
Because she had to talk to him-no, wanted to. As Ruler, Saber was but another Servant to her. She was a neutral figure. Yet her Revelation told her that he had an important part to play.
And…her honest feelings called for her to go. Similar such feelings had once driven Jeanne to walk away from her happy home to walk the battlefield. She had heard the Lord's lamenting. She heard His shrieks. His cries. His weeping. She felt His sorrow. Heard His small, feeble whispers that no one else listened to. To respond to His voice was why she threw away everything she had. Her life as a simple villager. The future joy of loving someone and being loved back. The fulfillment of a family. She discarded it all to confront the hell that the war had turned her country into-where conflict never ended and blood incessantly soaked the ground. There would be no compensation, and surely she would be scorned by both enemies and allies alike. Being burned at the stake was a natural end for a mere village girl who jumped onto the battlefield in His name.
His voice hadn't been a demand. It hadn't spoken to her purposefully. It promised no glory or victory.
But He lamented.
Surely she couldn't have turned her back on His cries.
She did not hear Him now. It was not His voice calling out. It was a mere whisper on the wind and feeling in her gut that told her the path before her was important-worth walking even if the end was lamentable. Just as when these had told her to venture onto the battlefield…surely she couldn't help but respond.
Finally, she caught sight of a hazy figure standing on a cliff at the highest point of the mountain. She let out a sigh of relief as she approached the clearing form of Saber of Black. She had made it.
Yet when he heard her steps and turned towards her, she felt her vision swim. A powerful-unique even-Revelation engulfed her vision. She saw three different scenes before her.
One was of Saber of Black, but with such an atmosphere of pain her heart ached. He was seated on the cliff, no emotion on his face but anguish in his heart. His hand was on his chest, fingers curled in preparation for an act she could guess from that anguish.
The second was of another. A boy with fine, elegant features standing above her and timidly extending a hand. He looked like a homunculus, but with features too splendid and heroic for those carefully crafted beings. The overlapping visions allowed her to identify them as reminiscent of Saber of Black. Was this a different aspect of Siegfried? That made no sense. Siegfried was a hero who became as such through actions, not destiny. Summoning him so young-before he accomplished his famous achievements-wasn't possible. Yet she still felt as if the person was Siegfried-somehow.
The final scene was of the present. Saber of Black was now facing her. He lacked the anguish of the other one in her visions, or the timidity of the Not-Siegfried. If anything, he appeared thoughtful. Almost…tranquil.
"Are you hear to kill me, Ruler?"
The sound of his voice snapped her out of that vision, and her body immediately failed from the intensity of that vision. Her legs collapsed under her. Sprawled out, she lacked the strength to stand herself back up. She wouldn't die, but her body needed food and sleep.
Yet seeing Saber approach, she stayed awake and aware. Soon he was standing above her. Then, instead of speaking, he crouched down. Slipping his arms underneath her legs and behind her back, he lifted her up with utter ease. She squeaked a slight bit at the act, but didn't protest further as he walked to the cliff edge. He then gently set her down with her back to the tree, providing an amazing view. From their positon, she could see the forested mountains stretching out before her alongside a small town in the distance that glowed with scattered lights. She barely noticed as Siegfried sat himself down on a tree next over.
He then spoke, "Is there a reason you collapsed at the sight of me?"
"I am currently possessing an ordinary French girl with compatible physical and spiritual characteristics to myself, with her permission. However this demands that I eat and sleep. Unfortunately, I have been too distracted and busy to properly do this," Ruler admitted with a blush, choosing to leave out her odd vision.
He tilted his head before commenting, "I'm sorry, but it wouldn't be good to continue such behavior. If she willingly welcomed you, every care should be made to ensure her continued safety and health."
"Thank you for caring for Laeticia's well-being, Saber," Ruler said with a genuine smile. "But you need not worry. While I am restricted by her physical form, myself and the Grail properly recorded her data before my arrival. Even should I die before the end of the war, the Grail shall reconstruct her body in safety away from here. Any injuries or physical damage sustained during this time shall be reversed."
"Ah, I'm sorry for presuming then," Saber said with a nod. "Is there a reason you followed me here? Considering your fatigue, it isn't likely to kill me. Although I assume your Privilege would still allow it."
"No. I just came here to…" Ruler began before trailing off as she embarrassingly realized she wasn't quite sure why she was here. She had simply felt like she needed to be here. Finally she went for basic, "I was investigating the recent skirmishes. The battle between you and Rider of Black was simply something I felt necessary to follow up on. As you were isolated and already proven to not seek my harm, Saber, I pursued you for some clarification."
"Ah, I see. It was a shameful display, but I shall not deny you your right," Saber answered.
Ruler then listened as Saber explained what had happened. An attempt by Rider of Black to rescue a homunculus, and how Saber of Black and his Master were sent to pursue them. Saber defying his Master, and the way his Master then used his final Command Seal to order the execution of the homunculus. The fight between Saber and Rider.
Then Saber's flight.
"So you have abandoned your Master," Ruler noted seriously. It hadn't been what she had expected. His legends portrayed him as completely loyal, maybe even too loyal. She however quickly added when she saw him tense, "However it is perfectly ordinary and legal for Servants to potentially betray or abandon their Masters."
Saber relaxed, but then silence followed them. She wasn't sure what to do. Or if she even could do something with her current weakness. Saber in turn seemed content with silence.
Until he wasn't.
"I'm sorry for imposing, Jeanne d'Arc, but I feel troubled. Even if it is a shameful display on my part, will you listen? Someone as pure as you might not understand my foulness, confessing my failures to a Saint is a chance to unburden myself. Or maybe just prove my thoughts by speaking them aloud to another. Although as we do not follow the same gods, I would accept if you refuse."
Surprised by the request from one who she had thought a man of few words and private thoughts, although not surprised he had deduced her True Name from her flag, she replied regardless, "I am not worthy of being called a Saint, but I shall listen as best I can. I am always willing to do that, Siegfried."
"My thanks," Siegfried said before starting, "I have no wish for the Grail, but I have a wish. No, a desire. I sought to find myself. The ideals I forgot-maybe even cast aside-in life in the name of fulfilling the wishes of others. It's a selfish wish. Fulfilling the wishes of others is not something I regret, in and of itself, but…"
"You are wrong, Siegfried," Jeanne quickly broke in. "I apologize for my failings as a listener, but I do not believe anyone has the right to judge the earnest wishes of others. As long as your desire does not bring doom upon the world or others, it is not wrong to wish for your own salvation. Even if that salvation be selfish in nature. To find out what you believe in is a wonderful desire as well."
Her words only brought a bitter smile to his face though. "I thank you for your kind words, Jeanne, but they are unnecessary. I have already acknowledged the foulness of my greedy desire. Even if I should be cursed for it…I have dedicated myself to use this opportunity for that which I failed to obtain in life. I shall accept any consequences of my actions."
Jeanne frowned slightly at that, but stayed silent. She didn't agree, but it was not her place. People had their own beliefs and bias'. You could not simply convince someone of your own viewpoint. Not even Charisma was such an almighty ability, as it should be. She might not believe Siegfried's wish was bad, but his values were different from her own. Even the negative way he clearly thought of himself was his own bias she couldn't just trample over or erase.
Already this conversation has become more serious than expected. More intimate too, by the way they were now using each other's True Names. Was this why she had felt drawn here? Was listening to him at this moment that important?
"My desire here is clear. To no longer fight for others, nor even myself but to discover my own ideals and fight for those ideals," Siegfried began again. "Yet, today I realized the shallowness of my determination to realize that desire. That Command Seal…I should have been able to fight it. Even without Magic Resistance, other Heroic Spirits could have fought. Yet not me."
"Because I allowed myself to become but a [System] that granted wishes in life. I had no place to judge others. That was my mindset. A machine. A wish granting device in the shape of a man. It seems that has followed me here. I claimed to want to fight for my own beliefs, but I without protest allowed myself to become but a soldier of the Black faction. I followed the orders of my Master and the leaders of the faction. It was simply…easier. 'This much is nothing' 'This order makes sense' 'It is simply better if I obey'. Even Rider, as pure and just as he is. All I could do is listen and help when he asked it of me. 'The homunculus asked to be saved. How can I not do so?'
"And so I walked the exact same path I did in life, even as I spoke shallow words of reassurance to myself that this time would be different. My own desire was…without substance for I failed to back it up with action."
"Tis only natural that when my Master gave me the sort of order I previously received, there was naught I could do. All the Command Seal did was input the order into the [System] that I am, and I obeyed. Just like in life. I couldn't resist. I didn't want to resist. It was not my place to resist. In the end, I showed myself as still the exact same person as in life."
"You should not make such assumptions, Siegfried," Jeanne once again interrupted. "I'm sure you fought. How else could both Rider of Black and the homunculus survive against you?"
"I'm sorry, but you overestimate myself and underestimate Rider," Siegfried claimed in spite of-or maybe because-her claim that could have relieved the burden he placed on himself. Looking at his hand, "Still with this hand I was willing to kill a comrade following his heart and one who only asked to be allowed the chance to live."
Looking back over the cliff, he continued, "That is why I ran. If I have any intention of fulfilling my desire, I had to leave. I had to make my desire have substance through acting on it. I had to step off the path I walked in life where I followed the orders of others and allowed them to decide what I should fight for. To change myself by walking a different path. Even if I disappear tomorrow from prana depletion or am killed by the enemy Servants, or even my own former comrades, it is necessary. I must separate myself. Walk a path that I choose myself, even if I have not a clue where I'm going or where I'll end up. If I don't, even if I survive to the end, win this Holy Grail War, and obtain the Grail…I know I shall only feel regret at the end for wasting this chance…I can't stand the thought of that. I would rather disappear now. So even if this too is a mistake, at least there is hope that on my own I shall discover something that would give my chance here meaning."
With that over, Jeanne paused. She wasn't sure how to respond. His desire was earnest and pure, despite the abuse he heaped upon himself. Finally…
"I shall pray you will be victorious in this war, Siegfried."
He blinked at her in the closest display of shock she had yet seen from him, before he finally commented, "I do not seek to win this war. I have no wish I would ask of the Grail. I'm sorry, but you should pray for someone with a worthier wish the Grail can actually grant to win."
"I pray all the Servants in this war prove victorious. Even if only one Servant will win in the end, I pray all fourteen shall triumph here," Jeanne informed him with a shake of her head. Putting her hand over her heart, "Everyone always tells me I should be bitter over my end, or seek revenge on those who burned me at the stake as a witch. I do not understand that though. I set out knowing I would face such an end. That I wouldn't be able to stop the war engulfing my country. Yet I do not regret it. I acted not in hopes of victory or recompense, but a small wish that I could sooth the Lord and bring even the smallest measure of peace. If I could do that even as an out of place farm girl from the countryside, then how could I ever look upon my life with anything but a smile?"
Looking him in the eyes, she told him, "You seek a small wish, and hope your presence here will have some meaning. I cannot offer advice, and will not try to offer comfort. All I shall do is hope that you shall find what you seek, and even if you face an ignoble end you will have no more regrets at that moment than I myself felt at the stake…I shall pray you prove victorious in this war, Siegfried."
"…Thank you for listening to my thoughts, no matter how unworthy. I also thank you for your prayers," he finally replied to her confession. Standing up, he announced, "I have taken enough of your time, Ruler. I shall take no more."
"No. I am glad. You bore your heart to me, Saber. Expressed your heartfelt doubts and desires. You have provided me a gift here tonight, even if you do not believe so," Ruler said as she tried to stand up as he did.
However she was soon reminded of her current weaknesses. Her body was more likely to fall asleep by this point than manage even ten steps. Blushing crimson, especially as her stomach growled again, she reluctantly asked, "I'm sorry, Saber, but could you possibly carry me on your back? My stomach is empty."
She had little desire to spend the night sleeping on the forest ground, and Sister Petresia could also end up worried despite Ruler having already admitted she'd be keeping erratic hours. She'd also be able to eat easier there.
Siegfried crouched at her side. Showing her his back, he told her, "For your time, I shall gladly return the favor by granting you my own." Blushing at the gesture, Ruler still clambered onto his broad back. As soon as she was on his back, Saber started moving with the speed and ease of a Servant even as he asked, "Am I right to assume you are staying in Trifas?"
"Yes. A small chapel."
Saber just nodded at the news, not altering his pace. Ruler soon found herself drifting off. Siegfried's back was broad, and she knew he wouldn't drop her. Eventually, her fatigued body finally reached the rest it had sought for too long.
Ruler found herself being awakened. Opening her eyes drowsily, she found herself face to face with Saber. Forgetting herself for a moment, she jumped back a slight bit at the unexpected sight before her.
However seeing him holding up a small bag from a grocery store, he told her, "I figured it best if you could eat before returning. It's just bread and cheese, but it should solve any hunger."
Blushing at her momentary confusion when she remembered all that had happened, and then blushing even more when the mere thought of food caused an audible rumble of her stomach. Lowering her head to hide her red cheeks, she gladly took the bag. Then as she opened it, she asked, "How did you buy it?"
"I found several bills on the ground."
Ah, that wasn't actually a surprise. Saber possessed the Golden Rule skill, even if it was a low rank. Siegfried had won the magnificent treasure-the Rheingold-when he killed the dragon Fafnir. It was great enough that he would never be troubled by money again. That carried over to him as a Servant, even if Das Rheingold-one of his potential Noble Phantasms-hadn't manifested. He would always find money to be available when needed.
However it was better not to comment on it. The Rheingold had been a cursed treasure. It ensured fate would work against him. That those he shed blood to protect would inevitably fall from his own actions and failures. It had also manifested in his Golden Rule skill, ensuring he had the lowest possible Luck rating.
Such thoughts were removed from her mind when she finally found herself smelling the food he had brought her. Simple fare, but more than enough to turn her ravenous. She quickly ate the bread and cheese, a bit too eagerly to maintain proper manners. By the time she finished the small snack, she found Saber looking at her with a raised eyebrow. She once again blushed, quickly cleaning her face of any crumbs from her eagerness.
"Do you need me to carry you?"
"No," Ruler quickly asserted, actually slightly embarrassed over the whole affair. Now that she had had twenty winks of sleep and a small meal she was already feeling better. At least well enough to return to the chapel.
Saber still accompanied her though, in case she collapsed again. Ruler had little concern over him discovering her current residence. While he had shown a side of himself tonight she hadn't expected, she felt no need to worry that he could use such information for nefarious means.
Soon arriving at the chapel, Ruler knocked. It was just courtesy, expecting the Sister to be asleep and for her to let herself in, but she was surprised when it was almost immediately opened. The Sister looked tired, making Ruler feel guilty as it appeared she had been staying up for her.
"Jeanne, good to see you returning," Sister Petresia said at the sight of Jeanne, who had dissolved her Servant clothing for her casual ones. She however paused at the sight of Saber, who had himself dissolved his armor to leave him in black clothing that nonetheless failed to hide his heroic figure and the glowing green tattoo on his chest. "Who is this?"
"An acquaintance I just happened to meet with nearby. A lot of stuff happened, and we ended up talking too late. He had to help me back here," Ruler quickly explained.
"Ah, thank you for that."
"I had nowhere else to be, and it was a good use of my time," Saber replied simply.
"Nowhere? Do you happen to need a place to rest like Jeanne here? We have no more beds, but we might be able to figure out something?" The Sister asked.
Saber however shook his head before telling her, "There is no need to worry, Sister. Plus, it is best that…our friends do not see Jeanne and myself together."
"What do you mean?"
Ruler stepped in here and claimed, "The circumstances between Siegfried and myself are…complicated. The way things are, some may simply misunderstand."
The Sister just looked between them with wide eyes. Obviously, she just didn't understand that as a neutral mediator, Ruler needed to stay separate from the other Servants, while Saber was now a person of interest as an independent Servant. Meanwhile neither Ruler nor Saber understood what she was thinking, seeing Jeanne apparently interacting with a handsome man so late at night in a secret rendezvous. The Sister felt Jeanne was clearly too virtuous a person to be up to anything untoward, but they did say it was complicated. Two foreigners happening to meet in a small, isolated place like this?
Neither of them noticed her misunderstanding though. Saber just nodded and started to walk away, but stopped when Jeanne said from the door, "Siegfried. Good luck. I shall pray for you."
He only nodded before leaving silently.
Looking at the clear sky, he finally started walking again…Even if he knew not where he was headed.
So, there it is. Siegfried is on his own. Always my intent for him to strike out alone..
Quick genuine question. Am I making POV mistakes? I shifted a bit around. The light novels do a lot. It's just hard to only use one character's point of view, since all the Servants are such diverse characters they each provide something to a scene. If that made it worse though tell me.
I had originally planned that Rider would be saved by Lancer of Black, where Saber and Lancer would fight and Saber would stop right as he was about to fire Balmung. However I just didn't like the fight scene. There's only so many ways you can describe Lancer throwing thousands of spikes at someone. So I just decided Astolfo's A+ ranked Luck would show.
This chapter had a number of potential POD's. My very first idea for this story was the story starting here. Saber wouldn't knock out Gordes, allowing Gordes to use the Command Seal as he did here. However Siegfried was supposed to actually kill the homunculus by stabbing him through Rider. Siegfried was then supposed to flee the Black faction, and Ruler was supposed to prevent him from committing suicide. One of her visions was of that, the other being her canon meeting with Sieg. A major part of this plot was actually Astolfo holding a grudge, and spending the rest of the war trying to avenge the homunculus by killing Siegfried. However the light novels definitely have handled Sieg better than the anime so far, and I decided I didn't want him to die. My next idea was Gordes actually granting Siegfried's request this chapter for a boon, thus preventing the whole affair. They'd return to the castle, and Lancer would allow the homunculus its freedom as a boon to Saber, Rider, and Archer. However I really wanted Saber to leave the faction, so I ended up with this version. It came out a bit messy. I'm not too happy with the Siegfried-Jeanne talk as I basically had to decide why the Command Seal would effect Siegfried so much. Tell me if it's just me, or was it a pretty bad and out of character scene.
Finally, what should the homunculus be named here? I can't do Sieg, but he needs a name. I'm wondering about Roland, a name chosen by Astolfo for obvious reasons.