Endless Path : Infinite Cosmos

Chapter 1160: Burden : Hope



While Das Rheingold was one of the most valuable treasures in the world, there were some things that couldn't be valued in any market. These were items that had either existed since the time of the Age of Gods or, by some miracle, managed to obtain a fragment of Mystery that managed to persist into the modern era. Though it was possible to reach the pool containing Das Rheingold by moving to the base of the stairs, there were other sections of the vault that contained the precious treasures the Einzberns had collected for more than a thousand years. Among these, serving as the centerfold of a collection that could easily fill a small museum, was a large golden scabbard decorated with blue enamel. Upon its pedestal, secured in a glass container covered in complex magical runes, it looked more like a King seated upon a throne than an object intended to accompany and sheath a sword...


Though Artoria's scabbard had been one of the main artifacts she intended to recover, Illya only spared it a ruminating glance before moving on to on item she considered far more important, at least to herself. She left her mother and Kenshin to begin securing the other items while moving to the side of the collection and undoing a seal that had been placed on a large ruby. This was a unique artifact known as [The Crown of Saints], a relatively useless item to most but, for Illya's purposes, it was perfect. After picking it up in her tiny hands, she walked over to the towering Heracles, smiling up at him as she said, "Please kneel for me, Heracles..." As he had always listened to her, ever since the time he had saved her from the wolves many years ago, Heracles dutifully kneeled before Illya as she placed the palm-sized ruby against his forehead.


The moment the ruby contacted Heracles, it began to sink into his flesh as an intense amount of steam began to explode outward from his body, filling nearly the entire room in an instant as the temperature gradually increased. His skin, which looked like wrought-iron before, began to lose its brackish quality, becoming a natural bronzed color that resembled highly-tanned flesh. A pattern of red markings began to spread across his brow and temples, looking similar to a crown of blood as the ruby embedded in his forehead began to glow with a mystical light. At the same time, the false gold and red eyes that always glimmered with madness in the past began to regain glow with the light of self-awareness as Heracles released a heavy and relieved sigh that carried enough force to push Illya back a few steps.


After rising to his feet, Heracles began to inspect his body, clenching his fists open and closed as his muscles and bones created small thunderous sounds, belying the great power contained within. Then, though he still had a visage that would cause lesser men to feel weak in the knees, Heracles managed a grim-looking yet genuine smile as his voice rumbled like thunder, saying, "Little one...it seems you're quickly growing beyond my need to protect..." Though his voice gave the illusion of a small earthquake to anyone hearing it, there was a touch of gentleness that made Illya tear up a bit as she murmured, "I'm sorry..." in a comparably mouse-like voice...


Due to their massive size difference, extreme enough that Illya barely surpassed his knees in height, Heracles responded to Illya's apology by using his index finger to rub the top of her head. Though it was almost impossible to tell, his expression had softened slightly as he rumbled, "It is I who should apologize to you, little one...I could not make your dream a reality. Had I ten thousand more lives, I would have given them all to free you from this burden..." Even as a Berserker-Class Heroic Spirit, Heracles had experienced the same memory link as every other Servant. Though he had no memory of the Fifth Holy Grail War, he had seen the efforts of his counterpart and the suffering Illya had gone through. It was these memories that allowed her to control him so easily during the Sixth Holy Grail War, rather than having to spend several months trying to establish simple communication.


Hearing Heracles' words, Illya's face formed into a whimpering frown as tears began to pool at the corner of her eyes before liberating themselves and running down her delicate facial features. She had always felt guilty about forcing Heracles to remain at her side as an emotional anchor and, even if he hated her, Illya wouldn't have blamed him. Though it felt like someone was rubbing a stone against the top of her head, she could still feel his concern and gentleness. Thus, while clinging to his large hand, which was bigger than her entire hand, Illya began to cry once again while, as he had always done, Heracles watched over her from above...


---


After 'robbing' the entire vault of its treasures, including the 'core' of Das Rheingold, an item that looked like a crudely forged iron ring, Illya and company left the emptied vault behind. Though the mountain fortress-castle would still be used by them in the future, Illya planned to seal it off for the time being unless Vahn had a use for it. This place had become a barrow with the number of lives that had passed through it and, for nearly a thousand years, the air, even with torches and a magic formation artificially warming the interior, felt cold and devoid of life. If someone were to use so-called Dark Magecraft and Necromancy within these walls, it would likely be far more powerful than almost anywhere else in the world. It was for this reason that Jubstacheit had redesigned a large part of the castle to be a cathedral, an attempt to sanctify the Einzbern Castle as a holy grounds instead of treating it as the endless crucible of death and despair for hundreds of thousands of Homunculi...


In total, there were nearly four-thousand Justeaze-Type Homunculi within the Castle, each having very small differences from each other based on the type of experiment used in their production. The common traits they all shared were inordinately beautiful features, ruby-red eyes, and pale white hair that was silky-smooth to the touch. At the same time, with a few exceptions, they each shared a ridiculously short lifespan, the oldest within the entire castle only being seven years old. On average, due to the inhumane experiments conducted within the Castle, most Homunculi would not even live to be more than two years of age before they were recycled.



This was largely the result of the fact that it was always better to produce the next generation instead of trying to preserve the previous generation. The only exceptions were those that had anomalous traits which, until their deviation could be understood, guaranteed they would lead longer and, oftentimes, far more tragic existences. Since Jubstacheit had been trying to recreate another 'perfect' Homunculus like Illya, there had been several pregnant Homunculi, many being a few years older than their counterparts. Instead of the eyes of an expectant mother, however, they each had thousand-yard stares without even the most basic semblance of a desire to live contained within their otherwise gorgeous red pupils...


Having come to the Einzbern Castle expecting things to take several days to wrap up, Illya and Iris began pouring over the research documents of the Artificial Humans while the former tried to make sense of the overwhelming amount of information contained within her newly acquired Magic Crest. It would take her many years to truly comprehend everything she had learned, especially with the ridiculous amount of redundancies and arbitrary information contained within her mind. Jubstacheit was the type that, even if an experiment had failed, he would continue to repeat it with only minor changes, sometimes with the only difference being a fraction of a degree in temperature or an act as 'pointless' as someone dipping their finger into a solution...


After passing on her orders to the Homunculi within the castle, including having them clean up the aftermath of the prior battle, Illya and Iris went to one of the most important rooms within the entire complex. Just as there was a Homunculi Disposal Yard, there was all a Homunculi Production Yard, the place where each and every Einzbern Homunculus was developed. This was a deep underground chamber that looked like an endless warehouse containing thousands of crystalline glass containers. On average, dozens of Homunculi were born and killed within the Einzbern Castle each and every day, with thousands being sacrificed annually to carry out oftentimes ridiculous experiments.


Over the course of a nine-hundred-and-fifteen year period, a total of 8,928,411 Homunculi had been produced within these icy-cold chambers, each and every one of them living tragically short lives as nothing more than tools. Things had only been exacerbated after the accidental production of the first Justeaze-Type Homunculi as, from that moment onward, the primary goal of the Einzbern family had been to try and secure the Holy Grail and reobtain the Third Magic.


After the failures of the Second and Third Holy Grail Wars, Homunculi had been mass-produced in an effort to make a Master that would, for a short while, even rival a Heroic Spirit in power. For more than two hundred years, millions of Homunculi had been produced with the sole purpose of fighting each other to the death, passing on their combat experience to the next generation like a machine-learning program. As a result, current generation Einzbern Homunculi were several times stronger than humans while their Magic Circuits and Od capacity made them comparable to a hundred other Magi. There were even some 'anomalies' who were far stronger than even Superior Magi, though this often came at a significantly reduced lifespan, spontaneous organ failure, or a complete lack of reproductive functions...


While staring at a group of Homunculi that appeared no older than a few months old, as they were always artificially aged to an adult form during incubation, Illya muttered, "I promise, the world you will be born into will be far warmer than this cold and desolate place..." This final batch, assuming they did not try and produce any future Homunculi, would reach maturity within two week's time. Illya intended to wait for their 'birth' before returning to Avalon as just the thought of leaving them alone in this dark and ice-cold chamber made her heart hurt. As there would be no Homunculi killed in that time, their final number would be over seven-thousand near-identical lifeforms, making Illya feel slightly guilty as Vahn, Da Vinci, and Paracelsus would all be 'very' busy for a few months when she brought them back to Avalon...


Fortunately, until the time of their departure, Scáthach was able to preserve the lives of those that had been nearing the 'expiration' date while Illya and Iris, both possessing the inherited knowledge of Einzbern Alchemy, were more than qualified to make small modifications and treat any deviancies. The most difficult part for them would be dealing with the still-births as, even if they were both Magi that had a strong tolerance against such things, it was never easy seeing a malformed fetus. Neither had any experience with such things, meaning they had to rely on the information hardcoded within their minds to assist with the births. Seeing the 'dead' look in the eyes of Homunculi that had been forced to bear such children was something would always be deeply ingrained into Illya's heart and mind, strengthening her conviction to create a paradise for them in the future...


---


As disheartening as some of her experiences within the Einzbern Castle were, there were a number of things that brought a smile to Illya's face. The five Homunculi she had saved from being recycled began to behave in the way she expected, their egos slowly awakening a bit with each passing day. Though the ones that were created for combat were fighting an uphill battle, as their ego had been suppressed so they would not experience fear, pain, and hesitation, it was very apparent they were making steady progress. They would need to overcome the apathetic mentality of beings that had experienced death 'millions' of times, but the introduction of new stimulus, especially of the positive variety, would go a long way towards their mental development...


One of the pet projects Illya had come up with was converting the central courtyard of the castle into a large garden, both as a way to introduce 'life' into the cold and desolate environment and to serve as a memorial to the lives lost over the centuries. It would be impossible to guarantee the number was accurate, but she wanted to grow a flower to represent each sacrificed Homunculus. This sentiment wasn't wasted on her 'kin' and, though they initially just planted the flowers due to Illya's orders, it became a common sight in the days that followed for many groups of Homunculi to gather within the nascent garden, observing the flowers with blank expressions.


Other than having them maintain the castle, Illya hadn't required any of the Homunculi to take part in any experiments, leaving the vast majority with a significant amount of free time. When asked what they should do, Illya and the other simply told them to think about what they 'wanted' to do and, if they could not come up with something, just relaxing and interacting with the others would be enough. Though they didn't have anything to talk about with their kin, this resulting in several small groups of Homunculi forming as they wandered around together, almost as if traveling as a group would allow them to 'find' whatever it was they were looking for. As humans were, on a very basic level, social creatures, this behavior was considered a positive development in the eyes of Illya and Iris.


Like this, several days passed within the Einzbern Castle without any real incidents, the one small exception being when a group of Homunculi found Kenshin training. For many of them, they had hundreds of years of memories related to combat so, seeing the battle-junky Kenshin exerting herself, there were some who interpreted the order to think about what they 'wanted' to do as proactively carrying out the very same experiments Illya wanted to avoid. They had no aversion at all to trying to kill each other, as this had always been the way their combat exercises were conducted, so Kenshin had to step in and teach them how to spar 'properly'. As a result, she had a small group of around forty Homunculi training with her every day, sometimes from sunrise to sunset as Kenshin was actually terrible at having 'nothing to do'...


During the passage of these few days, Heracles had been the complete opposite of Kenshin, to the point he could spend hours just standing atop the high castle walls, staring at nothing in particular. Illya would often join him just to talk but, apparently being a man of few words, Heracles would just respond curtly as he knew better than anyone how thunderous his own voice could be. This was not the age he had been born in, a time when the Gods still roamed the lands, so he could not be the same boisterous 'Hero' that others touted him to be. In truth, he had an overwhelming sense of guilt that he knew he would never overcome, no matter how many times he died. Illya was also aware of this, as she had experienced the memory link with Heracles twice, so she respected his solemnity and simply did her best to ease his burden slightly...


To be summoned as a Berserker, even though he was overqualified for nearly every other class, the only exception being Caster, this current Heracles had been pulled from a time in his Legend where he had just been controlled by Hera to kill his own wife and their fivechildren. He had been a part of a Theban company that had just won a hard-fought battle against the Minyans. However, during the celebratory feast following their victory, Hera had influenced his drunken mind to mistake his own family and companions as enemy soldiers.


Believing them to be assassins who intended to get revenge for their kin, Heracles had slaughtered the entire group, even choking the very life out of his most beloved Megara with his bare hands. It was this event that served as a catalyst for his Twelve Labors and, though he had never experienced them directly, Heracles still had the memories of his own exploits as a result of the Greater Grail manifesting his legend. There were some things he was so famous for that, even if he had been reverted to a younger version of himself, he would still possess those same qualities, usually as a Noble Phantasm.


With fresh memories of crushing his own wife's throat on his mind, Heracles had chosen to continue watching over Illya as a form of penance. Though he had the memories of his Twelve Labors, he was also aware that these were not feats he himself had achieved. Unless he could redeem himself once again, Heracles would never be able to absolve himself of the guilt in his heart. At the same time, he was tempted to lower his head and, if necessary, beg for Vahn to summon his wife and children into this timeline.


Though he had been unable to respond to him at the time, Heracles could vividly recall the time when Vahn had asked him if there was anyone he would want to summon into this world, himself included. If not for the fact it would be the same as 'running away', Heracles would have asked that Vahn summon him from History at a time before his madness, undoing the very event and changing the timeline. As this would be a very selfish thing to do, something even the Berserk him had been able to rationalize, Heracles decided he would be more than content just to have his family in his arms once again. Though he would have continued to dutifully protect Illya until the end of his days, Heracles believed he could fully dedicate himself in service of the Empire if Vahn was able to fulfill this wish of his...


(A/N: Alternate Titles: 'Raid Boss is awake...!','Gotta admit, the Einzbern Castle is a pretty fucked up place...','Vahn, stop summoning waifus and get this many his family back (T ^ T)...!')


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