Endless Path : Infinite Cosmos

Chapter 1158: Frigid



In a cold and icy land, several hundred meters above sea level, a tall figure that seemed to compete against the mountains in the background could be seen navigating the treacherous snowfields as it slowly ambled up the mountainside path. With bronzed skin that had an appearance similar to wrought iron, this monstrous figure stood out against the pure white backdrop, even more so due to the fact that it was barefooted and bare-chested as the cold icy winds broke against its body. There was even a layer of steam rising up from its body, obscuring the two passengers using its shoulders as a rock-hard seat cushion. Contrasting the almost monstrous 'creature', who could even tower over a Grizzly Bear, the white-clad figures on its shoulders could even compete in beauty against the tall mountains and scenic view that spread out in the vast valleys below...


Following behind the peculiar trio, riding a large white horse that completely disregarded the sub-zero temperatures as it slowly trotted behind the mountain-like man leading the way. This steed also had an impeccable beauty seated upon its back but, unlike the mother-daughter pair above, she cut a rather heroic figure as her long ankle-length hair, now set in an extremely long three-strand braid that danced in the wind, seemingly without a care for the 'actual' wind blowing against it. Instead, it flowed with a natural grace that, with its peculiar black and white design, would have caused anyone lucky enough to view the strange procession to believe they had graced upon a Goddess and her escort...


Now, halfway to their destination, the leading figure, Heracles, slowed to a stop. Kenshin rode her prided steed, Houshoutsukige, to a position standing next to him as, a few dozen meters up the path, a group of golems formed of ice and snow slowly took shape. As she prepared a spear, Illya held up her hand to stay her action, stating, "We are not powerless. This is our battle to fight..." With that said, several strands of Illya's hair began to move of their own accord before separating from her scalp as she chanted, "Engel Note, Angel's Poem..." Following this, the strands of hair formed into the shape of four peculiar birds, each taking on the form of a stork, ibis, sparrow, and falcon.


Hearing her daughter's words, Iris released a sonorous giggle before hopping off Heracles' shoulder and adding, "That is right, isn't it, Illya? Its time we start fighting for what we want instead of wishing against hope that it will come to us..." Hailing from a family whose Origin and Sorcery Trait were 'Wish-Granting' and the 'Flow and Transfer of Power', combined with the fact they specialized in the production of Homunculi, the Einzberns had always emphasized on 'dignity through defense'. They were never the type to seek out conflict and instead focused on using advantageous terrain to their advantage.


When she had been a Justeaze-Type Homunculi, Iris was able to use a veritable infinite amount of magical energy, so long as she was on the grounds prepared by the Einzbern family. Illya's case was even more extreme, given that 70% of her body was comprised entirely of Magic Circuits. Though her output was limited, she had a theoretically infinite amount of mana, so long as she was in contact with the planet. Even before her fusion with Cath Palug, she had been an existence similar to a Nature Spirit but, now that the rather adorable Beast of Gaia resided within her, Illya was closer to a Divine Spirit than a human or Homunculi.


While Illya's familiars zipped around at high speeds, shooting small laser-like bursts of Magical Energy that accurately targetted the 'core' of each golem, Iris extended her palms outward, her body glowing with modified Magic Circuits that were almost identical to her daughter's. Her wrists and forearms were covered various different types of storage bracelets, each containing a large amount of purified precious metal. Da Vinci had yet to help her design a system that would be able to neatly organize all the metals so, until then, Iris wore several accessories that matched the type of metal they held. This time, she pulled out a cubic meter of refined gold, an amount that would have been valued at nearly seventeen billion pounds on the market...


Though this was her first time benefitting from it, Iris enjoyed the tingling feeling of magical energy from the planet steadily flowing into her body through the soles of her feet as she shaped the cube of gold into a glimmering titan that was nearly 10m in height, albeit with large gaps that gave it a similar appearance to a clockwork machine than her traditional wire golems. Then, after establishing a mental link with the massive metal creature, Iris released a sonorous chuckle as the 'Golden Titan' extended its hand, the fingers extending faster than bullets to pierce the heads and torsos of any golem that formed to block their path.


Not to be outdone by her mother, several other strands of her hair began to rise before separating themselves from her scalp. Now, instead of four familiars, she had a total of twenty that darted around, some piercing directly through Golems with their bodies while others continued to fire small bursts of Magical Energy to instantly defeat her opponents. She didn't like using this skill too often, as the fear of going bald existed in the back of her mind, but Illya knew this was an irrational fear, especially with the regeneration provided by Cath Palug. As for why she used her hair instead of precious metals, it was due to the fact that using 'biomass' allowed her to transmit her Magical Energy into her familiars with greater ease. Though they were relatively fragile, the normal human head had as much as 100,000 strands and, with each strand rivaling an average Magus on its own, Illya was confident there were few enemies that could survive her assault...


With Iris' Golden Titan acting as a shield and vanguard, combined with Illya's small army of highly mobile familiars, the group's pace hadn't changed much compared to before they were attacked. Now, it was just a matter of seeing how the 'residents' of the mountain themselves reacted to their presence as, for the time being, the group only had to deal with the 'automated defenses' of the Einzbern family. Eventually, they would enter into the 'Territory' of the Einzbern family directly, separated from the rest of the world by a powerful magic barrier that completely obscured the massive stone fortress-castle that not only dominated the peak of the mountain it was built upon, but several hundred meters below the surface as well...


---


After an hour of traveling up the mountain path, a pulse rippled through the ground that caused the golems barring their path to cease forming. Then, from a space further up the path, several figures appeared from an area where there had previously been 'nothing'. There, a group of Homunculi that all had similar features, each superior to more than a hundred standard Magi, stood behind the only 'unique' figure among them. While the Homunculi were all females, possessing ruby-red eyes, white hair, and lightly armored Maid attire, the person leading the way was a young man with similarly white hair but pale blue eyes. He had the appearance of a boy between 14-16 years of age and, though his eyes seemed to possess no light, he still had a grimace on his face as he shouted, "This is the territory of the Einzbern family! What business do you have that necessitates breaking into our lands and disrupting the peace!?"


Though the EInzberns specialized in the production of Homunculi, there were numerous Artificial Humans and advanced Golems in their employ. Whenever they found 'suitable materials', usually in the form of a defeated enemy Magus, they would recycle the body before replacing its brain and organ's with magically enhanced organs harvested from their own 'failed' Homunculi. As a result, the Einzberns were able to expand into other fields of Magecraft to make it harder for their enemies to ever get a true grasp of their capabilities. They were also the first family any 'prestigous' Magus family went to if they lacked the means of transplanting consciousness themselves. In exchange for defense contracts, materials, and other necessary goods, they would help Magi past their prime inhabit a new, oftentimes more powerful, body...


Hopping off Heracles' shoulder, Illya walked forward with Iris following closely behind her, her head raised high as she shouted, "My name is Illyasviel von Einzbern, Ninth Head of the Einzbern family! I never relinquished my title, nor did I pass it down to a descendant of Einzbern blood! I order you to grant my party free passage up the mountain to meet with Jubstacheit von Einzbern!" At the same time as her shout, Illya channeled her Magical Power through her body, causing her face and body to glow with a red light that sent a 'pulse' through the snowy terrain. For a brief moment, even the wind had been kept at bay by her overwhelming Magical Power, causing the young man to widen his eyes in response.


Unlike the Artifical Human boy, the Maids behind him were programmed to follow the commands of the 'true' Einzbern heirs, the only exception being when the current Head gave them a direct order. Thus, even if he had wanted to refuse Illya's request, the boy fundamentally lacked the authority to muster them into action. If Illya was who she claimed to be, which wasn't exactly an identity anyone could just 'fake', any action he took against her could get him recycled.


Unlike standard Homunculi, whose ego was suppressed a great deal, most Artifical Humans within the Einzbern's 'employ' had much greater freedom. This was because, without the ability of a few to 'express' themselves, the Einzbern's knew it would be impossible for them to keep pace with other reputable families. Even implanting a mind and soul into a new vessel had its limits as, with age, the soul itself seemed to grow weary and desire death. Thus, in the present day, every 'true' descendent, sans Illyasviel, had already died long ago. Only their creations remained as, to prevent any kind of infighting, the Einzbern family had never allowed for the existence of Branch families and vassals.


Even if he wanted to bar her passage, the boy was not willing to take any action against the massive Golden Titan and the aerial fleet of Familiars without the support of the Homunculi behind him. As a result, he fixed the previous scowl on his face, masking his expression with a completely neutral one as he gave a gentlemanly bow and stated, "Please...allow me to escort you, Lady Einzbern..." With Jubstacheit being the 'acting' Head, as Illya seemed to be contending the title, he simply couldn't refer to her with that title. This didn't bother Illya in the slightest, however, as she answered with a curt nod before commanding, "Send a group ahead to inform Jubstacheit of mine and my Mother's arrival. I'll not be kept waiting in my own homeland and territory..."


Though Illya hadn't been to the Einzbern Castle since before she participated in the Fifth Holy Grail War, she still had vivid memories of its existence deeply implanted into her mind. During her 'conversion' into the vessel for the Holy Grail after her Mother's death, a grievous sin that Jubstacheit should have never allowed, she had become more of a Homunculus than a human. When she had died, having her heart removed by Gilgamesh, they had made even more modifications to her body before giving her a new life. At the same time, she was stripped of her title and, as if to punish her failure, turned into even more of a tool that, even now, could bring about the world's end.


She masked it well, but Illya had a phenomenal amount of hatred towards Jubstacheit and the current Einzbern family. If he intended to contradict one of his primary objectives, Illya was determined to rip the head from Jubstacheit's shoulders for corrupting the Einzbern family into a 'tool' for his own personal use. After all, even compared to the Artificial Humans within the Einzbern family, he was nothing more than a Golem that had been given human form, supplied with an Artificial Intelligence and all the knowledge of the Einzbern family.


At no point in history had Jubstacheit ever been a descendant of the Einzbern family, meaning he never had a 'right' to become the Head. He had essentially stolen the title in his endless pursuit of 'recreating Justeaze Lizrich von Einzbern', the primary function he had been given more than eleven hundred years prior. The current Jubstacheit was the Eighth generation model, the version that had been created by the Seventh when it took over the family two hundred and fourteen years ago. He had been the one to instate the 'Heavens Feel Ritual' and, ever since then, the Einzbern family had been on a constant downward spiral. If not for the existence of one of their greatest secrets, Das Rheingold, the 'greatest treasure', they would never have been able to persist as long as they had. It was a veritable 'infinite' source of wealth as the treasure took on the form of crystallized gold that, so long as it was provided with magical power, would continue to grow indefinitely...


While making their way up the mountainside, Iris turned her singular Golden Titan into a group of seven humanoid Knights, one for each of the Homunculi that remained at the Artificial Human's side. She had no intention of attacking, even though she showed a 'disarming' smile that, despite its elegance, also promised violence if it was necessary. By nature, Iris hated conflict but, if it was to protect her most precious treasure, she would become an enemy of the entire world, much less the Einzbern family. As for Illya, she had her Familiars fly around the area, scouting the terrain to make sure there were no 'unexpected surprises' laying in wait. Though some nearly fell from the sky after passing through the invisible membrane of the barrier surrounding the castle, Illya was still a Magus of the Einzbern family. She was able to quickly reestablish control, earning a cautious look from the Artificial Human who had been closely observing to see if she would 'slip' up...


With tensions in the air reaching a palpable level, the group continued until, somewhat surprisingly, they passed through a second barrier further up the mountain pass. Irisviel kept Illya calm by placing her hand on her daughter's shoulder, even though the latter had a determined, albeit adorable, look on her face as she looked up at the massive castle in the distance. It had the appearance of a large cathedral that had been converted into a fortress-castle later on. Though it was a rather fantastical sight, Illya felt like she was looking at a hallowed graveyard as, even though she intended to treat the Homunculi within as humans, they were currently nothing more than 'lifeless' dolls, unable to do anything more than carry out the will of Jubstacheit. As for everyone else, they were all 'guilty' for choosing to follow Jubstacheit, even as he nearly led the Einzbern family to extinction...


By the time the group made it up the mountainside, crossing a large stone bridge that spanned a massive chasm, there were already hundreds of nearly-identical Homunculi waiting for them, many outfitted with halberds, spears, and other rather archaic forms of weaponry as they watched Illya's procession make its way inside. Even completely surrounded, Illya had a fearless expression on her face as, with the protection of the [Effigy of the Hero] and Alaya, her only concern, her mother, was well-protected. As for herself, she wouldn't die no matter what methods they tried to use against her as, unless Cath Palug separated from her body, she shared its immortality. The only prize for their treachery would be death and the hands of the seemingly unstoppable Beast of Gaia who, unless Vahn or Merlin arrived, would continue to tear apart the mountain...


Though they made quite the show of power, none of the Homunculi attempted to bar their passage as the Artificial Human led the way into the castle's interior. Here, several other Artificial Humans were present, most having already lost the light in their eyes as, on average, the majority of them were well over a hundred years old. At this point, they were nothing more than the hands and feet of Jubstacheit, any 'true' loyalty towards the Einzberns having long faded with the vast majority of their emotions. Still, as Jubstacheit was still 'loyal', only carrying out his programming to a heinous extent, there was hope that they might be spared Illya's wrath.


As she passed by the mostly foreign faces, Illya saw a few she recognized, none she held a positive opinion toward. Other than her few personal Handmaidens, who had been killed more than ten years ago, Illya had nobody she was close to within this cold and desolate place. Thus, with her gaze gaining an icy glimmer, Illya continued forward until she found herself passing through the double-doors of a large and predominately empty room. The only piece of 'furniture' present was a stone throne, atop which sat an old man who seemed to be carved from the same material with how rigidly he sat.


With bridged white hair forming two long fringe bangs that extended to his collarbones, complete with long hair that flowed down to the small of his back and a split beard that was reminiscent of a frozen waterfall. At first glance, the man seated on the throne had a regal yet ancient look, his face permanently affixed with judgmental scorn that seemed to look down on the rest of the world. His pale-purple eyes, however, completely lacked the light of life while his ceremonial, robe-like attire, complete with accents of actual gold, gave him the look of a priest. With the only other decorations in the room being hundreds of candles, each painstakingly arranged so they always burned at the exact same height, stepping into the room almost felt like stepping into an ancient site where Gods older than time were worshipped...


(A/N: Alternate Titles: 'The future must be grabbed with one's own hands...','Mama bear will bite if her cub is threatened (O,...,O)...!','A place filled with thousands of people, completely lacking the feeling of life...')


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