It was a relatively peaceful day in Chaldea, for once. One of the most peaceful they had experienced since before the Incineration of Humanity, and certainly well-earned.
The false King of Magic, actually Goetia, the King of Demon Gods and the first Beast of Humanity, had been defeated. His Singularities had been resolved and human history had finally been restored. It had taken a lot of time and effort from the remaining staff and the veritable army of Heroic Spirits they had eventually been able to summon, the majority hailing from the very Singularities they had been tasked with resolving, but Chaldea had succeeded in recovering all of the tainted Holy Grails and stabilising Humanity's foundation.
Though the normal rules dictated that all summoned Heroic Spirits were to have their contracts annulled after the threat was dealt with, they had all stuck around anyway. For most, the decision was driven by the attachment they had formed with Chaldea's last Master, Ritsuka Fujimaru, his seemingly endless reserves of kindness, patience and sympathy helping endear him to a great many of them.
As the Mages' Association had found out, this unique bond between Chaldea's Master and Servants had also turned those Servants quite...protective. After all, they'd had to watch their Master step foot on battlefield after battlefield, in Singularity after Singularity, and had to protect him from increasing danger every time. It was only natural that some of them had developed those instincts towards him, especially some of the more familial or knightly types.
Minamoto-no-Raikou, Archer EMIYA, Cu Chulainn, Boudica, Gawain, Arturia Pendragon, Jeanne D'Arc, Saint Martha, Heracles...at least one of them was always close by or keeping an eye on their Master if his 'designated protector' Mash was for some reason unavailable, which she rarely was.
The Association had intended on interrogating the organisation's staff in the wake of the Incineration's reversal. After all, they had summoned FAR more Servants than was agreed upon, along with breaking many other rules and threatened to expose Magecraft to the wider world. In an age where Mystery had already declined so far, the Association simply could not afford for Magic to become known to the 'Muggle' world. They wanted answers, and Chaldea was going to provide them, one way or another.
At least, that had been the intention in theory. In practice, however, they had barely even started the process before the Servants stepped in. The majority had taken quite a liking to Chaldea's remaining staff, after all, and even those who hadn't were quite enjoying their new lease on life and didn't want to lose it. Thus, when the Association's dispatched teams had attempted to forcibly dispel the Summoned Servants and begin the interrogations of the staff, they had found themselves facing Noble Phantasms from all sides wielded by rather angry owners.
In the end, the Association's political power was utterly useless when faced with such might, not helped at all by the more moral Servants' utter disgust for the amoral practices of modern Magi. It had only taken a few thinly veiled threats of the destruction and ruin that would be visited on them, should they continue attempting to punish Chaldea's staff for something that was very much not their fault, for the higher ups to get the message and recall their teams. There had been a lot of complaints and calls for further action from the more unscrupulous Clock Tower Lords and Association higher ups, but those complaints tended to cease as soon as the complainer in question was encouraged to go and start the process themselves.
There weren't any takers when it got to that point.
Chaldea, for their part, paid no attention to the workings, magical or political, of the Clock Tower and Mages Association. They were far too busy recovering from the past year and a half's events, celebrating their victory over one of the Beasts of Humanity, working to find a way to revive all of the injured, cryofrozen Master candidates…and mourning the loss of another one of their own.
The loss of their Director, Olga Marie Animusphere, had been bad enough for the Staff's morale, but the loss of their Head Medical Officer-turned-replacement Director Romani Archaman was even worse, especially at the very end of their journey. The Staff had taken his loss badly, especially Da Vinci, Ritsuka and Mash...though there was also one Heroic Spirit who had not coped nearly as well as the others. King David of Israel was also in mourning.
This was because Doctor Roman was, in fact, his son, Solomon. The Wise King of Israel. The King of Mages. A Servant who incarnated as a normal Human using the power of the Holy Grail he won in Fuyuki in 2004, driven by his desire to live his own life, free of the connection to God and the responsibilities of a King that had shackled him so tightly in his previous life. The various Servants, especially the Casters, had taken his loss badly, but David had taken it the hardest by far.
Ordinarily, the death of the Servant was nothing too much to be concerned with, as they could simply be re-summoned by Chaldea and brought back to the fight, albeit missing the memories and bonds forged by their previous incarnation. Of course, that was nothing a quick perusal of Chaldea's archives and a few conversations with their fellow Heroic Spirits wouldn't fix. They could be all caught up and back in the fight within the day. However, this was not the case for Solomon.
Despite Goetia having evolved far beyond his originally assigned purpose, he was still inextricably connected to his creator. His possession of Solomon's physical body and nine of his God-given Rings of Magecraft, along with his use of Ars Paulina, Solomon's Reality Marble where death itself simply 'didn't count', as his primary base of operations meant that he and his Demon Pillars were functionally invincible. No matter how many times the invading Heroic Spirits cut them down, the Pillars would simply rise once more.
In order to separate them all from these magic systems and render them vulnerable, Romani had been forced to call on his final Noble Phantasm, activated from the single Ring of Solomon he had kept for himself, Ars Nova. All of his gifts and works had been returned to God, with Goetia losing control of Ars Paulina and his very existence destabilising as he was one of Solomon's 'works' himself, never to appear on Earth again...including Solomon himself. His soul erased from the Throne of Heroes' records and allowed to pass on to the afterlife, both King Solomon and Doctor Roman were no more by the time the dust had settled.
The Servants were crushed at how hard Ritsuka had taken the Doctor's loss. The man had been a constant presence and his friendship had been a great source of support and strength for the teenager, the boy had taken to blaming himself for Roman's death, insisting that he could have stopped it and beaten Goetia another way if only he'd tried harder to come up with another strategy.
It had taken a few weeks to pull Ritsuka out of the hole of self-loathing and guilt Chaldea's last Master had dug for himself. Even now, they had to be careful what they said lest he relapse. However, he was finally both leaving his room and socialising with others beside Mash now, which was progress they did not want to lose. The Servants all secretly cherished interacting with him, especially the more amoral or evil-inclined ones who tended to be ignored or even scorned by other Heroic Spirits.
Currently, a group of them were in the cafeteria, discussing the funnier or more amazing moments of their past adventures.
"I still can't believe we managed to beat Heracles." Atalante admitted. The topic had recently turned toward the Okeanos Singularity, and the Huntress had been rather keen to air her thoughts on the matter. "Having served alongside him as part of the Argonauts and witnessed his feats of strength and skill firsthand...I never imagined that I would one day have to help defeat him."
"Well, it probably helps that he didn't have much of that legendary skill as a Berserker." Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon, weighed in. "The only real problem was that God Hand of his! If I had my real body and my Divinity, I'd have blown through that no problem, right darling?"
"Yeah, yeah, we all know." The Hunter-turned-teddy bear replied. "But even as a near-mindless force of destruction, that guy is SCARY strong and fast. Thank god for that David guy and his Ark, because I don't think we'd have lasted long enough to finish him off all 13 times the way that fight was going at the end."
"I suppose you can see now why Heracles was the pride of the Argonauts when we were alive." Medea Lily pointed out. "He always had our captain's full confidence and trust. If there was anything to be done, then it would be Heracles that was first considered. 'There's nothing Heracles can't do!' was what he always said."
"It's a pity he was summoned in that Class." The nearby Hektor admitted, twirling Durindana idly in his left hand. "I'd have liked to see what the legendary Heracles could do as any of the others. Instead all he does is smash things with raw power...even if he still does it better than this old man ever could."
"He might only be able to smash things, but that doesn't mean he isn't useful, you know?" Ritsuka spoke up. "And even with his Madness...sometimes I see hints of him in there. I remember in this village we were protecting...he avoided a little girl and attacked the enemies around her. Remember that, Mash?"
"Yes, Senpai." The ever-loyal kouhai and Shielder Class Demi-Servant, Mash Kyrielight, replied. "Heracles-san protected her from everything that came her way and took a lot of effort to make sure she was okay. It's astonishing, I'd never have expected someone with Madness Enhancement as strong as his to be capable of something so...graceful and deliberate."
"Actually, it's probably to be expected from him." Atalante said. "Considering...what happened in his legend, I can understand why that desire to protect children would be so strong for him. And this isn't the first time I've seen bits and pieces shine through his madness, either."
"Mmmm hmmm, if you observe him closely, you can see bits of his old techniques shine through when he's in battle. He's not completely inelegant with that axe of his, you know? I still see him try to strike at weak points sometimes. It's very brief, but if you're looking you can see it."
"Not to mention how he acts around you, Master." Medea Lily added.
"Hmmm?" Ritsuka quirked his eyebrow in curiosity. "How he acts?"
"Yep! He's attentive to you and misses Mash whenever you're in combat. I can tell that he's always got at least one eye on you when enemies are around...he really seems to care a lot about you, you know?"
"Oh. Well, I'm glad to hear that, to be honest. At least I know I can rely on him."
"You've already been relying on him a lot, Senpai." Mash chimed in. "You took Heracles-san into every Singularity with you, and many of the countless sub-Singularities we had to deal with as well. Even if you took a lot of Servants with you whenever possible, he was always your first pick for the team."
"Well, Heracles is reliable, like Lily and Atalante said." Ritsuka pointed out. "Even if I've had to re-summon him a couple of times when going through the Singularities, he's rarely let me down. He always does his best for me, I can tell. I can't help but...well, feel at ease around him. Like I'm safe with him around."
"You're not the first to feel that way, Master." Atalante said. "Jason felt the same way, that's why he always kept Heracles around him whenever we faced a lot of danger during the Argo's voyages. Well, when he wasn't sending him straight at the enemy, anyway."
"You also treat him similarly." Lily said, twirling her staff. "He's not a tool to you. Or a legendary Hero. Or even a Demigod...it's like he's just another person that you happen to rely on."
"Well, why wouldn't I? I've got a whole lot of Servants by now, so I guess I just started seeing Heracles as 'one of the Chaldea family' you know? I might rely on him a lot, but I rely on other Servants too."
"I think that's why he's so fond of you, Master." Lily admitted, sighing. "He...confided in me once, that all anyone else saw when they looked at him was the son of Zeus...or a raging madman that slew his own family in a fit of rage. It was rare to find anyone who wanted to get to know the man beyond that. Even some of us Argonauts didn't talk very much to him, beyond Captain Jason. A part of me wants to make amends, but with his current madness I don't know how much he'd understand me.
"But for you to rely on him like anyone else...treat him like anyone else, that's a big show of kindness to him. It's probably why he's been so loyal, at least that's how it looks to me. His loyalty went to Captain Jason for precisely that reason in our original life, after all."
"And making use of him all the time, the way you have, there's no way you've not bonded with him all the way by now, right Master?" Hektor said. "Even if he can't exactly vocalise how he feels, I get the impression he's happy to be around you. He seems...calmer, you know?"
"Bonding with Heracles, huh? Must be nice, bonding with someone who still has a body like that." Orion groused, the teddy still a little upset at the loss of his form.
"Aaaww, don't be like that, darling!" Artemis cooed, the Goddess snatching him up in a cuddle. "I love you just the way you are!"
"It's your fault I'm the way I am!" The duo quickly fell into a minor fight as Orion struggled to free himself from the overly clingy Goddess of the Moon. "Hey guys, little help here?!"
To his dismay, everyone else at the table simply laughed quietly to themselves, making no effort to help him at all.
"Ah, to be young and in love." David commented, a wistful look crossing the King of Israel's face.
"Traitors! Traitors, the lot of you!" He cried, even as Artemis smothered him in kisses. "Master! Master! Have mercy on this poor bear! I promise I'll be good!"
"Artemis, can you let up a bit on Orion please?" Ritsuka asked diplomatically. "He looks like he's uncomfortable with what you're doing."
"Muuuu…fine." Artemis reluctantly loosened her grip and stopped her kiss onslaught, though she still nuzzled him against her cheek. "Sorry darling, but I just got so happy that I-"
All of a sudden, a tremor ran through the floor.
"Mmm? What was that?" Hektor glanced around.
Another tremor, this time closer.
"Atalante, are you picking up anything?" Ritsuka asked.
There it was again, getting louder and stronger still, it almost sounded like…
"Footsteps." Atalante murmured, animal ears swiveling to and fro. "It sounds like footsteps."
"Who the hell has footsteps like THAT?!" Orion demanded, the plush teddy clinging onto Artemis for protection.
As if on cue, the cafeteria door was practically barged through and the various occupants were met with the one responsible, a veritable wall of muscle that radiated power and strength.
"Heracles!?" Came the chorus of confused and/or stunned voices.
The mighty Greek hero and most recent topic of discussion began to approach their table, with a large slab of stone held in one hand and a sharpened stone in the other, his trademark golden axe nowhere in sight.
"Heracles, what is it?" Medea Lily asked, ever worried about the health of her fellow Servants. "Is something wrong?"
Heracles said nothing, not that he really could anymore, but instead he lifted up the stone tablet and began to drive the sharpened piece of stone into it. As the others watched, the Berserker began to drag it back and forth, up and down across the stone, almost as if he was…
Eventually, he turned the tablet around to show the others, a low growl escaping his lips as he offered it to Ritsuka. The last Master hesitated for a moment before taking the tablet, peering at what he found as he struggled to balance its weight. Thankfully, Hektor stepped in to stabilise it for him.
The crude slashes and grooves were surprisingly legible, with Heracles having taken a surprising level of care to form them into readable words. It was shocking enough that he was capable of that sort of dexterity with his high level of Madness Enhancement, but what was more shocking were the words he wrote.
"Thanks for Master"
"Uh...you're welcome." Ritsuka replied, automatically, not really sure what else he should say. This was, after all, the first time he and Heracles had actually communicated in this manner. He was almost always too insane to talk normally. "But, what for exactly?"
When Heracles reached slowly for the tablet, he and an equally stunned Hektor handed it back to him. Bringing up the stone 'pen', the Berserker was about to continue his scrawls, before his eyes narrowed and he let out a harsh, aggressive growl of frustration.
"Heracles-san, what is it?" Mash asked, concerned.
In response, he flipped the tablet back over to show the group that he had no more room to write anything else. Another angry snarl ripped from the Berserker's mouth, even as Medea Lily got up and made her way over.
"Heracles, would you let me?" The young Caster asked.
With a soft grunt, her former Argonaut comrade turned the tablet towards the girl, allowing her to get a better look at it. Raising her staff, Lily closed her eyes and focused for a few moments, muttering an incantation under her breath. The tablet glowed bright for a few moments as all the gashes began to fade, with a symbol carving itself into the upper right corner as they did.
"There we go." Lily pointed to the symbol. "If you fill up the tablet again, just tap that symbol and the enchantment will restore the tablet again, so you can write more. Okay?"
Heracles' response was to reach out a hand and, oh so gently, tap her on the head with two of his large fingers a few times.
"You're welcome." The Caster chirped, turning and skipping merrily back to her seat as the Berserker turned back to the tablet. Once more, he took his stone 'pen' in hand and began to carve new words.
"I've never seen him this articulate!" Artemis, ever the airhead, casually exclaimed. "I thought he was just a big dumb brute now, but there's really some intellect remaining under there!"
"Hey!" Orion hissed in her ear. "Keep your voice down a bit, you want to get smashed flat by him?!"
Fortunately for the scatterbrained Goddess and hunter-turned-plushie, Heracles completely ignored them, focusing fully on writing out the next round of words. After a good minute and a half of scratching and slashin at the tablet, he turned it over to Ritsuka and Hektor again.
"Treats me normal"
"Huh...well how about that?"
Medea Lily had a surprisingly triumphant expression on her face at the news.
Another round of handing back and slashing at the tablet later, the 'conversation', such as it was, continued.
"Make a promise"
"Mmm? What sort of promise?"
This time, Heracles took extra time with what he wanted to 'say', not only making the words smaller and more delicate but also making sure to flip the tablet over so he could etch extra words into the back. Before too long though, the Berserker was finished and handing the tablet back.
"Will be there always, just call for me"
Ritsuka was quite thoroughly caught off guard by that. He wasn't quite expecting that level of dedication from the insane Berserker, despite seeing glimpses of the real, sane Heracles beneath that raging storm of madness.
"Well...thank you, Berserk- no, Heracles. That means a lot to me. No matter how bad things get, I'll still rely on you, I promise." The young man insisted, smiling up at the hero.
Heracles' response was to reach out and gently tap him on the head a few times, an honest to god smile blossoming on his face. After a moment, he turned to Mash and Medea Lily, repeating the gesture on them as well. Both girls were surprised but didn't resist, with Lily even beaming happily up at him while Mash just looked adorably confused.
"Thank you!" Lily reached up to pat the Berserker's own hand as he withdrew it.
"Um, thank you, Heracles-san."
With that, the legendary hero turned and began to stomp off, out of the cafeteria. The Servants and one Master all watched him go, still processing that he'd actually opened a communication with them for the first time since his summoning.
Ritsuka, though, was left in contemplation. Though the Singularities and Incineration of Humanity had been resolved, the young teen could not help but worry. At the back of his mind, a small voice was telling him that this was not the end, that there were more trials ahead to overcome...if that time ever came, he had no doubt he'd need to be ready. To be stronger.
Well, at least he had all of his Servants should that happen.
"I've finished setting up the ritual circle, Senpai!"
"Hey, hurry it up back there! Those bastards are on their way here!"
"Yeah, I'm on my way!" Ritsuka called out, hurrying over as quickly as he could, wincing briefly at the bruises on his body that had yet to heal.
How did it get like this?
So much time, so much effort and so much advanced preparation just for this Lostbelt...all for almost nothing.
In hindsight, they had gotten a little complacent. The other Lostbelts had usually been slow to react to their presence, giving the Chaldea team time to scout the area, get the lay of the land and maybe even summon a Servant or two, if not enlist some of the wandering Servants already summoned by the Counter Force to dismantle the local Tree of Emptiness. That had not been the case here.
From almost the minute they entered Atlantis, the ancestral ocean of the Greek Gods, they had been set up by a flotilla of incredibly advanced-yet-ancient looking ships, helmed by none other than Odysseus and backed from orbit by Artemis.
The Nautilus had been wrecked by the Goddess' bombardment in a matter of moments, while the rest of their fledgling fleet was torn apart battling the Atlantean navy force. Even Chaldea's Servants had been brutally taken out of the fight, at the hand of a truly terrifying and thoroughly unforeseen opponent.
Typically, the various opposing Masters took no active part in the defense of their Lostbelt. How could they, when they were eclipsed in every way by the various Phantasmal, Demonic and Divine Beasts, Heroic Spirits and Divine Spirits that populated the regions the Trees of Emptiness sustained? They commanded from the rear and directed their Servants to fight for them. Though Akuta Hinako, or Yu Mei-Ren as she preferred, was a special case among the Crypters, even she needed to consume her own Servant's blood and Spiritual Core to recharge her Xian powers enough to fight.
Still, there was no way one of the human Masters could stand against even one Servant, right?
That assumption had been shattered into thousands of pieces when Ritsuka had met him face-to-face for the first time.
Kirschtaria Wodime. Chosen heir to the Animusphere 'Thesis', whatever that was. The leader of Team A. So called 'chosen one' of the Foreign God. Crypter of the largest and mightiest Lostbelt that existed...and fully capable of crushing anything Chaldea could throw against him, mundane or magical.
He had arrived on a bolt of lightning in the middle of sea, standing in front of the rag-tag remnants of Chaldea's initial force without fear. In fact, he seemed almost...pleased. Ritsuka thought he caught a glimpse of eagerness on the other young man's face when their eyes met for the first time. Of course, the chaos that ensued made it difficult to be sure.
It had been almost hilariously one sided. The remaining Chaldean Servants had been batted away time and time again, throwing all they had against his magical barriers while he smote them with beams from the sky. They barely scratched even the first layer before the last Heroic Spirit disappeared, leaving only Ritsuka and Mash standing.
Ritsuka had faced impossible odds before, yes, but against Wodime, he had truly felt like a leaf being thrown around in a hurricane. Helpless to resist and utterly powerless before the storm. The only reason he and Mash had survived was thanks to...The Chaldean.
The man with the face of their dearly departed Doctor, but not the eyes. Those were still familiar, though not for a particularly happy reason. Ritsuka had seen those eyes only a few times before, those were the same eyes…
He barely wanted to think about it. Not again. Not now...not after all the losses they'd taken so soon.
All of their initial team, wiped out by the Atlantean navy and Wodime's intervention. They'd had to pull together any Heroic Spirits they could find to form the 'Neo-Argonauts', under the command of Jason, the sole remaining original Argonaut once Chaldea arrived.
And then one by one, the newcomers had fallen too.
Francis Drake had been killed in an orbital bombardment drawing Odysseus and Artemis' attention away from Chaldea.
Chiyome had sacrificed herself, willingly being fed to the Titan Echidna and then activating all of her bloodline's curses at once, crippling the Mother of Monsters and denying the Olympians access to the army she could produce.
Achilles had died holding back the Lostbelt's version of Chiron and his accompanying soldiers.
Hektor died blocking an orbital strike from Artemis, and Mandricardo had eventually followed along in his idol's footsteps, with the exact same weapon he'd salvaged from the former.
Paris had also sacrificed himself to become the arrow needed to strike down Artemis.
Bartholomew Roberts had burnt himself out by outrunning the Atlantean navy, simply to get Orion, the Grand Archer, into proper firing position.
Orion himself had fallen in a mutual kill, shooting down the Machine-Goddess with his final Noble Phantasm: Ortyga Amore Mio before dying in the retaliatory bombardment she had managed to launch before her body was critically damaged.
Finally, Jason had stayed behind on the collapsing, critically damaged Poseidon to hold off Chiron once more.
While Fujimaru was no stranger to Servant allies dying, there were always some survivors in the Singularities and the previous Lostelts, not even Tiamat's rampage in Babylonia had been enough to finish off their supporting Heroic Spirits.
But here...everyone had died. Their entire support team from Chaldea AND the Counter Force-summoned Servants had given their lives just to get them this far. Even then, it was merely a dent in the Lostbelt's military strength as a whole. The whole of Olympus was against them, as were the remaining Machine-Gods, Wodime, and his Servants.
Well...not all of the-
"Oi, Master, you gonna use that circle anytime soon!?" Came the boisterous voice of Caenis, Divine Spirit-turned-Servant to Wodime-turned-renegade. Apparently, she'd not taken kindly to his decision to have the Dioscuri dispose of her...not that she'd been any kinder to Chaldea when Goredolf had found her.
It was only by offering her a croissant in a last-ditch effort to save himself from the angry Caenis, unknowingly invoking the Ancient Greek custom of Sacred Hospitality in doing so, that Goredolf calmed her down enough to get her to listen. The Divine Spirit's hysterical laughter at the absurdity of the bribe she was offered certainly helped speed that process, while also making her more amenable to negotiations. She had been positively delighted to learn that Chaldea aimed to neutralise the remaining Greek Gods along with her treacherous Master, signing on without many more complaints.
Alright, it's time. Ritsuka thought as he approached the magic circle. But who do I want?
He had an answer almost immediately. There was someone he really needed above all else. Someone he had relied on since his boots first hit the ground in Fuyuki...someone who had promised that he would always be there, if only Ritsuka would call him.
Here we go.
Raising his hand as the circle began to light up, Ritsuka took a deep breath and yelled out.
"Heracles! I need your strength!"
Just as the words left his lips, the door to the group hideout, along with half the supporting wall, was blown inwards as the Olympians finally arrived.
The Master's cry, from the moment it left his lips, reverberated across space and time, through the ethereal bridge that connected a world that should not be and a place outside of time and space itself.
All too soon, it reached the 'ears' of the Demigod himself. The Heroic Spirit felt his form shift as the link began to activate, pulling him forth to answer the summons. However, Heracles began to lumber 'forward' entirely on his own, intent on traversing the link and answering the summons as fast as possible.
Ordinarily, a Servant's memories and experiences would not persist across separate incarnations, but somewhere in the depths of his soul, the ghostly memories of that same voice began to rise up and into his mind.
"Alright, keep those enemies busy, Heracles!"
Accompanied by snippets of another, more child-like voice that was also so familiar to him.
"Get em Berserker!"
More snippets. The Lostbelt was drawing closer.
"Thanks for your help today, Heracles. You've earnt a rest if you want it."
"Thanks for everything, Berserker."
He was almost to the end now, he could feel his Saint Graph start molding his physical form, ready to manifest.
"No matter how bad things get, I'll still rely on you, I promise."
"Berserker can't be beaten, he's the strongest man in the world!"
The bright light began to fade, the world around him swimming into view, with a very familiar face at the forefront. Were he not weighed down with Madness Enhancement, Heracles would have gladly smiled at the sight.
Servant Summon Successful.
"C'mon! Come get some, you bastards!" Caenis snarled, the Lancer charging into the fray and attacking the closest Knight possible with her trident. The Knight, despite all of his enhancements from the Gods, was no match for a Divine Spirit and was quickly forced back under the brutal barrage of trident thrusts. Caenis grinned wolfishly and moved to press her advantage.
However, two separate swords came whizzing in to block her attack, wielded by two very familiar faces. Faces that Caenis actively despised the sight of.
"Oh look, brother dear, the failure has come back for more." Came the unrelentingly condescending voice of Pollux, one of the Dioscuri and fellow Divine Spirit serving Wodime, Caenis' now-former Master.
"Indeed she has, sister, but I suppose she qualifies as a full traitor now, what with the equally pathetic company she's keeping." Castor said, that smug sneer of his seemingly welded right onto his face as he pushed Caenis' trident back.
"Look on the bright side, at least this gives us the excuse to kill her now."
"It does, doesn't it?"
With that, the twins proceeded to press the attack against their former ally, forcing Caenis onto the defensive. The Olympian Knights and accompanying automatons, taking advantage of her distraction, began to surge forward towards Chaldea's members. Fortunately, they still had some Servants on their side to protect them.
"Damn it!" Kintoki called out. "All of you, c'mon! We gotta protect Master!"
"Wait for me, Kintoki!" Raikou said, brandishing her own sword as she followed along.
"Come on then, to battle!" The accompanying, now-sane Caligula agreed as the three Berserkers moved forward to engage the enemy.
"I'll take you all on!" Mordred yelled out as she and Fran approached next, both Homunculi charging their weapons with lightning.
"They will feel the wrath of my lance." Lancer Artoria Alter brought up the rearguard, blasting the enemy frontline with Rhongomyniad before charging into the fray.
Though the Servants put up a brave fight against the Olympian forces, ultimately the knights and automatons began to push them back through a combination of their sheer numbers, allowing them to more easily encircle their enemies, and the enhancements that allowed them to fight more evenly with Heroic Spirits than the previous Lostbelts' forces.
Chaldea's forces found themselves gradually being hemmed in further and further, with the Olympian knights reaching closer and closer to their Master. Some of the knights broke off and began to encircle Caenis, forcing the Divine Spirit to split her attention between the new attackers and the Dioscuri, who both wasted no time pressing the new advantage presented.
Damn, I can't take all these idiots and those bastard twins at the same time! She thought, gritting her teeth out of anger. Fuck it, if I'm gonna die, I'll take as many of these God-worshipping cunts as I can!
"Gah! We can't hold them off!" Mordred growled out. "We gotta fall back!"
"The summoning ritual is still in progress, we MUST hold!" Lancer Alter insisted, swinging her charged lance in a wide arc to force the attackers back.
"Ufufufufu, you silly little humans, thinking you have a chance!" Pollux taunted. "Don't worry, we'll soon crush that notion, just like we'll crush y-"
However, the Dioscuro's taunt was washed away by a cacophonous roar.
Moments later, Chaldea's formerly surrounded and outmatched Servants began to find themselves free to breathe and catch themselves, as the enemy soldiers were sent flying backward groups at a time, which meant only one thing.
The summon was successful.
"What the hell was-" Castor began, only to stop himself and hurriedly fling up his sword to block the incoming golden axe aimed directly at his head. Even taking it dead on sent him stumbling backwards and it took a great deal of effort for the Servant to even stay on his feet.
"Brother!" Pollux' moment of distraction allowed Caenis to regain the advantage, launch a brutal knee into her opponent's gut, shield bash her over the head as Pollux doubled over and then kick her away.
Scrambling to their feet, the siblings and panicked knights struggled to reform the front line, only managing to partially form up again before the newly summoned Heracles began tearing into them. The Berserker swung his axe to and fro in a frenzy, sending legions of Olympian soldiers flying away as the hulking madman waded deeper and deeper into the enemy forces.
"Hell yeah!" Caenis cheered at seeing the havoc he was a wrecking, a large grin on her face. She had heard stories of Heracles from both Wodime and Odysseus, her Master regaling her of his adventures and legend in Panhuman History while Odysseus and told her of his exploits as part of the enemy Servant force under that coward Jason's leadership. The Lancer had been especially eager to fight him after hearing of his blocking a head on orbital strike from Artemis without perishing to defend his fellow Servants, only to lament his death from a second strike.
Now, however, having him as an ally and seeing him singlehandedly turning the tide, and in the process forcing the insufferably smug Dioscuri to drop their arrogance as they were put on the defensive for once, gave her a thrilling rush that had her whooping as she dove into the fray once more.
With Heracles' rampage scattering the enemy's formerly ordered lines, Caenis had a much easier time picking off the Olympian forces. She thrust her trident forward time and again into any knight or construct that dared cross her path, occasionally mixing in some shield bashes and kicks for good measure. The more she advanced, the further back they retreated, only fuelling her sense of triumph.
"Yeah, that's it! Go back to your master and hell him I'm coming for him! Nobody tosses ME aside! NOBODY!" She snarled as she skewered the last Olympian knight she could see and flung him aside.
However, all too soon, a voice began to call for her.
"Oi, Lancer! We need to fall back and regroup!" Came the rough tone of Mordred as the Knight of Treachery came into view, beheading one of the remaining combat robots in the process.
"What!? But we've got these bastards on the run!" Caenis snarled, "I'm not leaving when I can finally kill those shitty twins! They need to pay for what they did to me! We're almost done!"
She wasn't wholly wrong. Almost all of the Olympian knights and automations had been killed or had withdrawn by now, thanks to the Servants' combined efforts. All that was really left were the Dioscuri, both of whom were at least moderately injured by now, standing alone against the three Chaldea-aligned Servants in the street.
Still, Mordred would not be dissuaded.
"Alright fine, have fun dying when SHE shows up." Mordred made to move back, only for Caenis to grab her arm.
"What are you on about!?"
In response, the blonde simply pointed up into the sky, Caenis followed her finger until her view settled on an unmistakable object slowly coming closer and closer.
It was Aphrodite, the Electronic Data Warfare-Type Attack Vessel-turned-Goddess of Love. The Goddess' 'Alethian' (the term Chaldea used to describe the pantheon's true selves) form's wings began to open, emitting a blue aura of power that was visible even to the Servants far off on the ground.
"Shit, we gotta-" Mordred began.
"Oh my… some ungrateful little mortals in need of a lesson from their betters." A smooth, silky voice interrupted the Knight of Treachery, coming from a red haired woman who was flat-out materializing in front of the Servants. Even Heracles came to a halt after finishing off the last of the Olympians' forces, the Berserker temporarily transfixed by the sight in front of him.
Her dress was...barely there, her upper arms, shoulders and stomach almost entirely exposed to the elements. A halo of yellow hearts danced around her head, flanked by four red wings, the back pair mounting skulls on them.
Stepping forward, Aphrodite surveyed the battlefield while taking a short drag on the cigarette held in her left hand. Her mouth formed into a thin line as her gaze came to rest on the slightly hunched and battle-scarred forms of the Dioscuri.
"Mmmm, how disappointing that children gifted with the essence of the Divine cannot beat this mortal rabble." The Goddess practically spat the last words out as if they were poison in her mouth, face visibly scrunching up in disgust for a moment. "Such a shame...kneel and beg for mercy for your failure."
"We had everything in hand until that brute showed u-!" Castor began to snap, despite Pollux's hurried attempts at hushing him.
Aphrodite's eyes began to glow, the Divine aura around her flaring bright as her features twisted in contempt.
"I. Said. Kneel." She said.
All of the Servants in the street found themselves forced to obey, dropping to one knee despite their attempts at resisting. Caenis' whole body shook as she desperately attempted to fight the order, but even the Divinity and Authority she gained from Poseidon was outmatched by the will of the Machine Goddess.
Mordred growled out in attempted protest, but one look from Aphrodite forced her mouth shut. Castor and Pollux were equally helpless, the latter inwardly cursing her brother's lack of restraint and hoping their punishment would not be too severe. They knew how harsh the great Gods could be to those who did not meet their expectations.
Though they all made a valiant effort at first, resistance from all the Servants quickly died down.
All of them, that is, except one.
Aphrodite could not help but look on, her expression a mixture of curiosity at the hulking man for his resistance to her command and utter fury that this lowly Servant would dare to defy her will. Looking closer, however, she could not help but see similarities in his features.
"Ah...of course, Zeus' offspring, back from the grave again I see. It matters little, now obey your Goddess and kneel." Aphrodite commanded once more.
Despite his whole body shaking as his own indomitable will warred against his opponent's mental command, Heracles pushed on, an aggressive snarl tearing from his lips as the Servant's gaze focused solely on Aphrodite.
In the fight between curiosity and fury on Aphrodite's face, fury quickly won out as Heracles drew ever closer. Her once beautiful features were now warped into a hateful snarl as she tried to bore holes into the approaching demigod with her gaze alone.
"You DARE mock me like this?! Disrespect me like this?! ME!?" She screeched, practically frothing at the mouth. "WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!"
Her voice was booming through the entire city block that her Alethian form was presiding over now, with the other Servants crying out in pain as their eardrums were strained to bursting from the cacophony.
The Berserker's response was to roar right back in her face as his right arm began to move. Though it was a jerky and sluggish movement, as if it was being heavily weighed down, Heracles raised his axe high into the air in defiance, intending to bring it down right on the Goddess of Love's head.
Beads of sweat began appearing on Aphrodite's head as she kept devoting more and more power to her compulsion aura, specifically to its effect on the man in front of her. However, no matter how much she amplified the effect, the Berserker she was facing down would not kneel, nor would he stop raising his arm.
What...what sort of power is this!? She thought, a hint of panic creeping into her mind. N-nothing with mortal blood can defy us like this! Nothing has EVER defied us like this!
Gritting her teeth, the enraged Goddess began to channel all the strength she could muster into forcing the man in front of her to kneel. She no longer cared how much power it took, he WOULD submit to her and he would be punished for daring to defy her like this!
Unfortunately, Aphrodite's razor-sharp focus on Heracles quickly turned into tunnel vision. So engrossed was she in amplifying her compulsion aura into full-on mental domination, she forgot that some of the power she was drawing in had already been in use elsewhere.
The Dioscuri, Caenis and Mordred all gasped, slumping down as the pressure on their bodies began to fade. The Lancer was the first to struggle up, casting a quick glance over at the now-distracted Goddess and still-advancing Berserker, before looping her arms around Mordred and hauling her in the direction of their temporary hideout.
"Come on….while he's distracting that bitch, we gotta go!"
"Hey wait, we can't just leave him!" Mordred protested.
"He's giving us a chance right now." Caenis insisted, gaze hardening. "If we stay here and get slaughtered, then his stand here won't mean anything. So we gotta make this count."
The Knight of Treachery wanted to argue, but she bit her tongue and relented. All of the other Servants were already retreating with Master anyway...it wouldn't do to get left behind. Not in a Lostbelt as hostile and advanced as this one, anyway.
The duo hurried off, Mordred finally running under her own strength again, unhindered by anything. The Dioscuri were still shaking off the effects of Aphrodite's compulsion and dealing with their prior injuries, while the Goddess herself…
"YOU. WILL. SUBMIT!" She snarled one last time, visibly sweating from the exertion.
Heracles, his axe having reached the apex of its arc, answered by bringing his weapon down with as much strength as he could muster.
A bloody squelching sound echoed through the street as metal met flesh.
Aphrodite stumbled back, blinking in shock at the deep gash in her neck.
Heracles swung again, this time tearing a chunk from her chest.
Another swing, practically splitting her head in two.
With a loud roar of aggression, the Berserker began stomping and jumping on her body. He would not stop until all that was left was a barely recognisable heap of torn flesh and twisted bone, surrounded by scraps of a dress and with mangled red wings sticking out of them.
"G-Goddess Aphrodite…" Pollux whimpered, as she and Castor looked on in horror.
"Fear not, my children." A booming mechanical voice responded, coming from the giant ship currently hovering over their heads. "The loss of my terminal was merely a minor setback. I am quite unharmed."
"Oh, thank goodness." Pollux let out a sigh of relief.
"As for YOU…"Alethian Aphrodite intoned, her attention fully on Heracles now. "It seems that compulsion was not quite enough to quell that primitive, violent mind…"
Heracles growled, preparing to spring as he drew back his axe, intent on taking the fight right to her.
"Perhaps pacification is necessary."
And then, just as the Berserker hunkered down into a crouch, preparing to launch himself at her, Aphrodite began to sing.
The Chaldea team had been running full tilt down the streets of Olympus, having taken the back exit out of the hideaway to escape in the commotion and beating a straight path to the Underworld, when Caenis' animal ears had perked up.
Skidding to a halt and turning in the direction of the Aphrodite's Alethian form, her enhanced hearing let her pick up what was happening.
"Come again?" Mordred tilted her head.
"What is it, Divine Spirit?" Caligula asked. "Do you hear something?"
"...she's got him in her 'song'" Caenis growled. "He won't last much longer, we gotta move faster!"
"We're really just going to abandon Heracles-San like that?" Mash asked.
"What other option have we got? You really wanna go back there and try your luck against one of the Olympian Gods, shieldy?" Mordred clapped a hand onto the Demiservant's shoulder as she spoke. "Look, I know it sucks...but he stayed there to give us a chance to get away and try again."
"I agree." Lancer Alter cut in. "We must withdraw immediately, the Underworld is the only area that the Sky God's surveillance cannot penetrate, yes? We can plan our next move there."
"Come on then, everyone." The Servants all turned to face Ritsuka himself, the Master already striding off with heavy steps. "There's no time to waste."
"Are you...are you alright, Senpai?" Mash asked, concerned.
Stopping in his tracks for a moment, Ritsuka turned his head to face her. His expression was grave.
"No. Not really...but I can't stop moving forward, even with everything that's happened. And it's not like Heracles is the first Servant that's sacrificed himself for us at this point, is it?" Though he tried to sound indifferent, the frown that crossed his face betrayed how Chaldea's last Master really felt.
"You can mourn em all later." Caenis assured him, surprisingly gently. "Right now, we should move on."
"Uuuu! Uuu!" Fran agreed, the Berserker nodding her head.
Even as the team started to move again, Ritsuka could not help but spare a thought for Heracles.
Even if you're facing down one of the Gods of Olympus on your own...I hope you're holding out, Heracles.
Heracles was screaming.
Aphrodite's siren song, projected from her Alethian form directly onto him, had forced him to his knees, his axe on the floor next to him as both hands were clamped firmly over his ears, desperately trying to shut out the sounds that burrowed their way into his head, carrying the Goddess of Love's Authority with them.
His iron willpower would normally make most attempts at charming and brainwashing him ineffective. However, with much of his rational mind suppressed by the whirling storm of insanity stemming from his Madness Enhancement, the Goddess' song had a far easier time finding purchase.
In the hero's mind, Heracles' remaining sanity and rationality drew inward, using whatever strength he had left attempting to protect himself from Aphrodite's steadily encroaching Divine Authority.
"Come, little mortal…submit. Let me re-educate you as to your folly."
Those words kept repeating, growing louder and louder all the while. Heracles grit his teeth, a pained growl slipping forth, even as he fought tooth and nail to hold onto himself, the Berserker could feel his control slipping…
"Come on, Heracles, we need to help those people!"
A memory. A piece of memory from before flashed before his eyes as a familiar voice resonated in his ears.
His current Master, who'd led him through saving all of history.
"Listen to me! We don't need those Gods' favour, YOU don't need it! I'll find us a place where you can get the acceptance you deserve! As long as you stick with me, I'll find that place for you!"
… Jason, his friend from the Argonauts.
"No... no… Berserker... Berserker... where are you? It hurts... let's stay together forever, right, Berserker?"
White hair. Red eyes. Purple jacket with a skirt. She'd summoned him as part of some large ritual...
All of these people...they'd given him the acceptance and kindness he'd wanted all his life. They'd treated him like a person...showed concern for him when he was injured. They'd relied on him, put their faith in him. Even when he failed, they'd still been kind to him.
His current Master still needed him.
And here he was… falling before a member of the pantheon that had caused him so much pain.
The pantheon that, in this world, had dominated and controlled humanity for thousands of years.
Treated them like… commodities. Extensions of their will to be used and discarded.
It reminded him far too much of the worse parts his life… and it could not be allowed to continue.
In his mind, the Goddess' Authority found it harder and harder to find further purchase as Heracles began resisting even more fiercely than before, drawing on strength of will that the hero himself had not been consciously aware of. The shattered embers of his sanity had grown into a small but fiercely roaring blaze, overriding Aphrodite's attempts at pacifying him with both his righteous fury at the state of the Lostbelt and his unbreakable loyalty to his Master's command.
Stuck, the Goddess' Authority changed targets, attempting to pacify the only thing left to access… the raging storm of madness and insanity that scourged the Greek hero's mind.
The three-way clash between sanity, insanity and Divine Authority grew more and more intense as Aphrodite, determined once more to force her opponent to bend to her will, steadily channelled more and more of her vast power into her song. The ferocious mental battle could not continue in stalemate forever, one of the warring forces had to give in.
The soothing song against the furious madness. Louder and louder… stronger and stronger… until-
At the same time, the Dioscuri, mostly recovered from their earlier injuries, had been approaching the prone Heracles, who had finally removed his hands from his ears and was simply kneeling on the ground. His struggles and shaking from earlier had seemed to cease, which prompted Aphrodite to cut off her song as well, there was no sense to waste her energy on a defeated opponent.
Pollux was more cautious, weapon at the ready. Castor, on the other hand, swaggered towards his opponent, his cocky smirk on full blast and all his earlier caution thrown to the wind.
"Hmph. What a pitiful but expected sight, the mindless madman bowing to his superiors." Castor said, derisively spitting on the Berserker as he raised his sword.
"Brother, be careful." Pollux warned, her gaze flitting between Heracles' hands and axe all the while.
"Hmph. What can he do sister? The brute's helpless after the Goddess' assault, just watch as I-"
For the second time, Castor was cut off. This time, he felt his legs get swept out from under him by a brutally swift one-handed swipe to his ankles. After a brief moment of weightlessness, a knee slammed into the small of Castor's back, followed up by a fist smashing down onto his chest. Then again… and again.
His spine gave way after four hits.
"AAAAAAAAHHHH!" Castor's scream echoed through the street.
"BROTHER!" Pollux cried out.
The female Dioscuro charged forward, swinging her sword directly at the Berserker's head. However, her sword hand was only halfway to the target before Heracles' own hand shot out once again, wrapping around her wrist and twisting it hard as the hero rose to his feet at last, his other hand holding the limp Castor like a ragdoll.
Pollux quickly changed tacks, dropping her blade and lashing out with her free hand, aiming a punch at Heracles' gut. With matching speed, her opponent released her wrist and intercepted her hand, forcing it to the side. A muscular leg was swung at her chest, forcing Pollux to hold her arms up to protect herself. The sheer force of the strike sent her sliding back, churning up the ground under feet in the process.
Wiping her mouth, Pollux took a boxing stance, preparing to fight the Demigod that currently held her brother. Heracles, surprisingly, made to do likewise, even taking a familiar combat stance...until Aphrodite's Aletheian form began to power up again.
All it took was a single glance upward at the Machine Goddess, her mechanical wings unfurled and charged with energy, for Heracles to decide to throw the limp Castor directly at Pollux, forcing her to stop and catch him long enough for the Servant to disengage.
"Gaah! That bastard! I'll kill him!" Castor spat out, trying and failing to sit up.
"Brother, please rest! We can go after him later, but right now you need medical attention!"
As she finished speaking, Castor was surrounded by a blue energy field that began to lift him out of Pollux's hands. Though both of them did panic a little at the sudden action, they calmed just as quickly when they noticed the field was emanating from Aphrodite above them.
"Do not struggle, young Castor. I will bring you to Demeter, her ambrosia fruits can heal any injury. We need all of our servants at full strength to crush these invaders, after all."
With that, Aphrodite began to ascend into the sky, the prone Castor still caught in her energy field, leaving Pollux alone.
As she moved to collect her and her brother's weapons, Pollux could not help but reflect on her earlier standoff with Heracles. At the moment she'd looked into his eyes. She'd seen something in those eyes, in the gaze they'd levelled towards her. She had tried not to show it in the moment...but she had felt a little scared.
For it was not madness she had seen in those eyes.
It was intelligence.