Garden of Avalon
00. In the Flower Garden
The gentle plains were dotted with blossoms of every colour. Obstructing the panoramic view of the evenly split land and sky stood only a forest in the distance. No fences nor homes built by man existed here, nor did the likes of the constructs known as walls, castles and countries.
The days were woven with spring sunlight and the scent of summer while the nights were engulfed by the autumn breeze and the wintry sky.
The land was inhabited by flowers and insects. The forests were home to water, greenery and various beasts. And in the lake dwelt the fair Fae.
Mankind’s vision of paradise was but an imitation of this realm, an isle at world’s end that they were forbidden to set foot in. The myths referred to this tiny domain as the Land of Eternal Spring, the Island of Apples, a utopia far beyond the reach of intelligent beasts. Despite existing alongside human history, it was a foreign land wholly unblemished by the recurring cycles of decay and destruction on the planet’s surface.
Its name was Avalon: the inner sea of the planet. It was another name for the location where Earth’s soul resided.
"No, I wouldn't say that's a proper expression either. After all, this place exists on both the inner and outer sides. Possessing the same coordinates and location, it is merely offset by several phases."
In the garden, there was someone in the form of a human. A man clad in a robe that appeared modest yet was in fact spun with the finest fabric. The sun’s rays shone through his long hair, inducing a rainbow of colours as he gazed calmly into the distance.
He strolled through the sea of flowers, speaking to them as if they were friends. Without hurting even a single petal on the ground, he hummed with neither doubt nor hesitation. The man was undoubtedly a wandering sage that had lost his way into this foreign land.
After all, he himself did not know the way back nor did he have anywhere to return to. If you had told him that this was the world after death, he would merely nod in acceptance. But he hadn't the slightest bit of fear, for he was very much a foreign being in his own right. It was said that no living human could enter this paradise, however, he was not actually human. He had only assumed the shape of one. To him, the outer world and this paradise were the same: the home of others. While he did not belong in either, he could only find himself in one or the other. From the beginning, his sense of values was to approach neither humans nor paradises. Targeted by a woman he had shunned, he opted to cross the boundary and entered this unexplored land on a whim.
"But this is terrible. The magical energy here is far too dense. Just like a vacuum, even taking a single breath would kill someone. A denizen of this era would have their innards blown out. It may be called a paradise, but perhaps it would be more effective as a weapon?"
As he put his thoughts into words, the man continued to walk through the garden.
This current era he spoke of referred to that of the outer side of the world. Leaving behind a fifth-century island nation on the verge of collapse, he had made his way to this paradise alone. The man served as the court magus of a certain king, but before his liege's final battle, was forced to flee due to exceedingly personal circumstances involving a woman.
"Ah, it's as I expected. Mordred was able to rouse the lords that had been admonished by the stern, idealistic king and risen in revolt. Condemning her for the recent harsh winters, thus begins their rebellion."
The man continued to trudge along, the flowers he was avoiding starting to dwindle in number.
The isle may have been without limit, but that did not mean there was no change in the environment. The closer he drew to what should have been the end, the more it morphed into a barren land resembling that of Britain in the outer world. Stepping onto the infertile land, the man resumed his humming and twirled his staff around.
Despite no signs of magecraft or the arcane, flowers unfathomably bloomed in the imprints of his footsteps. They were not born from his desire to adorn the garden, nor were they due to pity for the barren land. Such phenomena were as natural as breathing to this being.
Flowers for the earth. Dreams for the people. And a future for our history. Those were his specialities, as well as his true nature.
His name was Merlin, the Mage of Flowers; one who stood at the summit even amongst the greatest mages in the multitude of myths and legends.
The offspring of a human woman and an incubus, he possessed eyes that could see through the world, a testament to his supreme mastery over magecraft.
"Well, supreme they may be, but sowing seeds is about all I can do. Being able to see further than the average man doesn't mean that we can be compared."
Clairvoyance: the ability to observe other locations while remaining in one place. In ancient times, the gods left the earth to shamans, who were bestowed this power in order to protect the lives of mankind. Regardless of the depth of their magic circuits or the scale of the magecraft rituals they performed, one could not be considered to stand at the summit without these eyes.
Merlin was endowed with eyes that could see through the world. Ever since birth, he had the ability to observe everything in his era without taking even a single step, down to the smallest of details.
There existed mages before him that possessed eyes able to view the past and even the future, who were undoubtedly at the pinnacle as well. However, the only living mage with clairvoyance was Merlin alone. His predecessors had brought destruction to their own realms and vanished from the world of men.
If knowledge was both the foundation and the furthest depths of magecraft, possessors of clairvoyance were said to have reached the truth of the world. They were born human and yet were heretics unable to comprehend their own values.
Without the ability to view the past, Merlin was unable to understand how human beings lived their lives, only gaining a glimpse of their feelings. Placing human society aside, he had the impression that their lives weren't very interesting at all. He was aware of nearly every occurrence in his era and was able to ascertain how they would end as well.
To him, the world was no different than a painting. A painting almost akin to a divine miracle, certainly worth appreciating in his opinion. But the more intriguing he found it, the more the sense of alienation loomed over him. As one who sowed the seeds, he had a perspective like that of a god. If only there was a companion that could sympathise with his complaints, his life might have been different.
It was to the point that he'd thought of taking his own life and ascending to the Throne where he'd be laughed at by his predecessors. Or rather, there was never a time that he didn't think of it.
But Merlin had a single responsibility remaining that he had to ascertain with his own eyes. The demise of a certain people. The final moments of the king he had raised.
"I do wonder... The Age of Gods has ended and the Age of Fairies will soon follow suit. What is to come is the Age of Man, but that is also fated to end someday as well. When the planet ceases to rotate, the time will come for the Age of Will, where we will proceed to populate the cosmos. Those unable to exist without flesh will be left behind as artefacts. And yet... I wonder why I'm so entwined with mankind…"
Merlin was born to a Welsh princess and incubus. As a cambion, he was a higher form of life that possessed both a spiritual nature and the ability to subsist on humans—a rather half-baked existence. He himself thought that had he grown up as an incubus' child, he'd only wish to play in the world of the mind. At the same time, he rejoiced that due to the human individuality he had developed, he was able to sustain himself not just on the dreams of others, but on his own as well.
Despite such an origin, Merlin never grew to dislike humans. In fact, he adored them excessively. Rather than standing with his brethren, the fairies and giants, he found himself on the side of humans, raising and advising numerous kings to bring about a better era for man. Even amongst the people and knights, he'd always have a smile plastered on his face, an avid enjoyer of their activities.
His policy was to govern as he would a flower, one of the reasons why he later became known as one of the world's foremost kingmakers. This was due to his wish to complete his painting in a way that he found beautiful, as a 'happy end for humanity'. But there was no love for humanity, let alone for a single human, to be found there.
To man, Merlin seemed to be a jovial figure, but his essence was totally different. From a human's perspective, his true nature would be more akin to an insect. An extremely mechanical and objective being, his thought process was much too disjointed and incompatible for the intelligent beings of this planet.
Merlin was fond of the sublime and beautiful, but there was no reason for this 'attraction'. They simply fit perfectly into the hole in his heart. ‘Mankind's legacy' was also of interest to him, but he was a being unable to empathise with the actual human beings that created it.
"This work of art is beautiful. However, I am not interested in the contents of it, nor am I able to comprehend the joys and sorrows the creator felt when making it. I see no value in it and I do not understand it. I just find it beautiful."
Merlin himself was aware of how awful his tastes were, but was unable to change it. After all, those are the values instilled in an incubus by nature. To them, a dream is only to be evaluated for its nutritional value, not its contents. It is no different to humans, who do not spare a thought for the animals they eat at the table, no matter how illustrious the lives they may have lived.
"I sustain myself by eating dreams. However, despite my preference for happy dreams, practically speaking, nightmares are much more nourishing. You could say that in order for happiness to triumph over despair, an individual must overcome challenges that are exponentially more difficult than even the simplest nightmare. As such, this imposes an even greater burden on the dreamer."
Merlin stopped, thinking that he was far enough that even the wicked witch's claws could no longer reach him. In front of him stood a gate, fashioned from rough-hewn stone, its gigantic size reminiscent of Stonehenge. Beyond the gate laid the same barren plains as before.
Inscribed on it was a single phrase: ‘only the sinless my pass’.
"I see... it appears I've been deceived."
Merlin shrugged and walked through it, flowers continuing to sprout behind him, as he made no attempts to avoid it. In an instant, the plains he had been standing on transformed completely. Massive walls of stone burst from the ground, encircling him as if to trap him. They soared over him, extending vertically with no end in sight. It looked just like a tower with no ceiling.
He turned around to find that the gate had disappeared, leaving him at the centre of an infinitely tall stone tower. A five square metre cage carved from paradise itself. This was the true form of this bounded field. It seemed that someone who despised Merlin had made sure he'd never leave this tower for the rest of his life.
"I really don't get humans after all. A curse of this scale would require an immense cost, possibly even the life of the caster themselves. How odd. I don't remember doing anything to make that girl loathe me this much. But well, if I have no recollection of it, it must not have been anything important.”
Only the sinless may pass.
Merlin stepped through the gate, knowing it was a trap, because those words had stung him. Despite wishing for humanity's happy end, he harboured no love for humans themselves. In the name of prosperity, he expended countless human lives and treated them as if they were insects. Good or evil didn't enter the equation for him, and neither did love or hate. As a result, he felt no guilt, to the extent that he thought the phrase 'sinless' could refer to no one else but him.
From a larger point of view, it could be said that Merlin did in fact love humans, proactively involving himself in their affairs and enjoying their actions. He merely lent a hand to humanity and cultivated their kings, without feeling an ounce of responsibility or guilt about what would happen to their countries afterwards.
Or at least until he heard the parting words of a certain girl. "Well... I suppose it can't be helped."
Inside his narrow cell, the man sat down on the remains of a protruding rock. It was too hard to serve as a proper seat but its height was perfect, allowing him to see through the sole window in the wall.
Only now did he realise the real reason he was here.
The sky he saw through the window was not the Britain of reality. But as long as he existed in the same era, the man was able to perceive any place in the world. The Mage of Flowers reminisced on the journey that he had taken and began speaking to Cath Palug, the familiar hidden in his robes.
The end is in sight. So before that, let us speak a little of the past.
01. The Morning of Selection
As the morning rays shone through the door's gaps, she awoke while feeling their warmth on her eyelids. Her surroundings were dim, and the presence of other creatures and the scent of hay permeated throughout. She was enveloped in a blanket—seemingly her elder foster brother’s doing—to offer a smidge of protection from the cold. Glancing at it, she recalled that she was in the stables. Last night, she'd grown so concerned about a newborn foal that she ended up staying with it until the wee hours of the morning.
"Oh no. I mustn't keep Ector waiting again."
The gentle face of the foster father that raised her for the last fifteen years came to mind as she speedily yet carefully put away the blanket, straightened her clothes, and put together the horses' morning meal.
This routine marked the beginning of her day. Once she finished tending to the horses, she'd head to the garden, where her foster father, Ector, awaited. Every morning, she was only permitted a meagre morsel of bread. It was meant to last her throughout her swordsmanship training, and only after sparring in a famished state would they partake in breakfast. This was a tradition between the two of them.
"Eto, I finally landed a blow on Ector yesterday. I only managed to push him back slightly—a single step—but on a ruthless battlefield, would that not be a decisive blow? It could've led to his foot catching on a tree's root, causing him to stumble. Under certain conditions, it'd be my victory. Or so I think.”
She gleefully spoke to her foster father's beloved steed as she brushed its coat.
Her foster father Ector was the strongest and most tenacious knight she knew. He had not won glory in battle, but neither was he ever the subject of gossip, as he never sought fame. Despite this, to her, he was the ideal knight. Bested by the passage of time, he withdrew from the front lines of war. However, his prowess with the sword hadn’t waned a sliver, even to this day. When she forced her foster father to exert himself in the slightest, her delight was clear to see.
“But he’s seemed rather troubled recently. Seeing someone like Ector down in the dumps makes me worry.”
He was both her foster father and a strict mentor, but that strictness of his had begun to fade away as of late. Her relentless mentor, who constantly paid a keen eye to her every action and brought attention to her every mistake, could now often be seen looking at the girl with an inexplicable look on his face. It was one of anguish, remorse, and sorrow.
The very fact that Ector displayed a look of weakness on his face bewildered her. She wished to absolve him of his worries, but as a mere squire, there was not much she could do.
"Ector. If something is weighing on your mind, do speak freely of it. I am resolved to do anything unless you plan to cut down on our meals. Are your legs troubling you, after all?"
She had once asked this of him.
"Hm, it is simply your imagination. My body shall be in good health for another ten years. However, Artoria, it seems you are not quite ready to do 'anything'."
He replied dispassionately, as he always did. Though Ector's unfailing health was certainly a blessing, it only served to whet her curiosity regarding his troubles even further.
Her foster father's beloved steed brushed its long face against hers.
"Indeed. I'm certain Kay has been stirring up trouble again. Even Ector can't mend that potty mouth of his."
She stroked the steed's back with a wry smile on her face, then departed the stable.
As she opened the wooden door, she was greeted by an expanse of grass illuminated by the morning sun. Ector's dwelling was situated on the outskirts of town, removed from the bustle of the neighbourhood's daily happenings.
Despite favouring solitude, he did not dislike mingling with people. She understood why he had chosen to reside here: it was because of her. Thinking about it made her want to convey her remorse to him, but she understood that it would mean desecrating his pride. He fulfilled his duties as a knight. He took her in, raised her, and even departed from his place amongst the other knights. She must not respond to his deeds with guilt. Back then, and to this very day, she believed that the feelings she ought to harbour toward him were those of gratitude.
"No, but..." In truth, she had but a single dissatisfaction: he strictly forbade her from calling him 'father'. In the end, she was never granted the chance to call him by that name, filled with her affection. The aged knight awaited her in the back garden. He had not changed a speck. He was ever the relentless mentor who took her in and taught her the way of the sword. Ever since she took up the blade ten years ago, he had continued earnestly training her every single day. Indeed, that had remained unchanging until this day — the day that would mark its end.
"Sorry, I'm late! I overslept!"
She tossed the piece of bread prepared by Ector into her mouth and picked up a wooden sword.
"You seem rather lively for someone who claims to have overslept. Very well. As usual, I will not hold back this morning."
The aged knight was composed, as he always was. With sword and shield in hand, he smoothly and naturally assumed his stance. His gaze was gentle, yet burdened by sorrow — the sorrow of parting — which the girl feigned ignorance toward.
"Artoria. It seems Kay forgot his things. Make your way to town and bring them to him. If you depart now, you should be able to make it in time. "
After finishing lunch, Ector entrusted her with a full set of knight's equipment. Kay — Ector's son, and Artoria's elder foster brother — had gone out to town. Seemingly, some sort of special fair was taking place in the town today. Kay had ridden off on Ector's horse, venturing toward town to participate in the fair. However, in his haste, he failed to take a knight's most vital possession with him — his lance.
"Jeez. My brother calls himself a knight, yet he's forgotten his lance. Is that even possible?"
"Indeed. Jousting has fallen into decline. In this day and age, there are more draft horses, and combat steeds have grown sparse. This is the only lance in our family's possession, which is why I could not teach you how to handle it."
"Really? I believe it'd be rather simple to fashion a mock lance though."
"You would be the one handling it after all. The Mage decreed that I may train you with a false sword, but never with a false spear. It would be problematic if you were to develop any strange habits."
"I will not develop any of those 'strange habits' you speak of. I just need to deliver this to Kay, right?"
"Indeed. This will be your final task for the day."
She nodded in response, took a horse from the stables, laid her brother's belongings on its back, and departed for the town. Descending from the hill where Ector's house stood, she passed through the meadows and made her way through the gap between the fields. The sky was dotted with clouds, but the clear weather indicated there would be no need to worry about rain.
As her brother's face came to mind, she suppressed her feelings of impatience and continued at her usual pace. Her horse had a heavy load on its back, so she refrained from forcing it to move faster.
"...I don't see anyone around. It's so lonely even though it's the season for harvest."
After casting her gaze over the familiar countryside landscape, she turned her attention to the distant forest. It had provided them with a multitude of blessings until just a year prior. The hunters would enter, only bringing back the necessary meat and fruits. However, it was their hunting grounds no longer. The foreign tribes had found their way into the forest, slowly encroaching upon the Britons' livelihoods. Now, if you entered the forest and were unfortunate enough to run into them, you wouldn't even have time to worry about finding food to put on the table tomorrow—you'd have to worry about finding a way to survive the day.
Fifth-century Britain was an island in the midst of great upheaval. It all originated with the collapse of the empire on the continent. Britain—which was under the empire's protection—began to decline. The foreign tribes, known as the Saxons, crossed the seas in search of sustenance. They sought food, garb, and land to dwell upon. Britain was an island nation ruled by many kings and tribes. Though the conflict between the tribes was unending, there was also the war with the Picts inhabiting the north. This northern invasion gave rise to the kings' cooperation.
However, one of the kings corrupted their pact. He aimed to use the foreign tribes to fulfil his own desire: the unification of Britain. He was the Vile King Vortigern: the incarnation of the white dragon born from Britain in order to one day destroy it. He beckoned the Saxons in, throwing the island into the midst of chaos.
Londinium, the cornerstone of Britain, a fortress city constructed when the empire once ruled, was reduced to ruins. Uther Pendragon—the greatest of all kings—was defeated by Vortigern in this battle and disappeared for all eternity. Vortigern granted the Saxons land, and the respite afforded to them temporarily quelled the invasion. However, to this day, many kings still maintained their displeasure over this decision.
...And so began the dark age of Britain. War became an everyday occurrence. Britain had always been a rather infertile land, and only a scarce selection of crops could be grown. The people's lives grew harder day by day, and it was evident that Britain would soon fall to ruin.
But they did not lose hope as this had all been prophesized by the great mage Merlin, advisor to Uther and protector of Britain.
"King Uther has chosen his successor, and he will be our new king. When our new king—the red dragon's incarnation—makes himself known, thus shall the Knights of the Round Table gather and vanquish the white dragon. This truth shall soon be known to all: our king still lives!"
Merlin's words echoed throughout the entire nation. The people continued to await their future king's arrival. Meanwhile, though the knights were granted relief by Merlin's prophecy, they had also grown restless. They mused deep within, wondering if they themselves could be the chosen king. Meanwhile, Vortigern continued ruthlessly searching for Uther's successor. That was ten years ago.
King Uther's successor would turn fifteen this year. Five years before his demise, he had a premonition of his battle with Vortigern and colluded with the Mage to create an heir that would soon save Britain.
Artoria made her way past the fields, and the greenery surrounding the town finally came into view. While Londinium was a fortress city built in the empire's style, this town was as mundane as it got.
Certainly enough, the town's mood was unlike usual. Everyone had grown restless, and Artoria began to head for the knights' training ground on the outskirts of town. The children were making merry and running around, each wanting to be the first to reach their destination. On one hand, the adults' eyes were sparkling with overflowing hope and expectation, but on the other, they were waiting with bated breaths, trying to avoid the disappointment of their hopes being betrayed as they hurriedly made their way.
"Merlin has come!"
"On this very day, the king's successor shall finally be chosen from amongst the knights!"
"So that's why everyone is so restless, huh", she thought to herself.
She quietly realised why Ector had sent her here.
"Oh? If it isn't Artorius. Are you sure you should be lounging around here? You may only be a squire, but you're still a knight. You might also have a chance, you know?"
She nodded in affirmation to the familiar youth. When she was outside, she presented herself as a man. No, from the moment she was born, and to this very moment, she had been raised as a 'man'. She was dressed in a man's garb, and her hair was tied at the back. Her good looks had won her the favour of the town's young women, but as she was no more than an orphan that an elderly knight happened to adopt, her fellow knights had never really considered her one.
She could likely pass as a boy with a slender body until she turned fifteen, but that would likely not hold for the future. She was currently a squire, but as things stood, she wouldn't even be treated as an attendant. With a young lady's physique, she could neither wield a sword nor be permitted onto the battlefield.
"I shall be there shortly. I need to bring something to Kay after all."
"Is that a lance? Why would you need a weapon? Merlin said yesterday that he who pulls the sword from the stone shall be crowned king of Britain!”
He said that the sword in the stone was the Holy Sword that shall beckon victory; that it was a stronger proof of kingship than ties of blood. Before the mage, lineage was meaningless. He who wields great power—he who shall save Britain—shall be the only one recognized by the sword.
"I see. So it's just like the Sword of Selection, isn’t it?"
"Yeah. That's why it's been so lively since morning. Knights from all around the country have come to stake their claim to the throne."
Vortigern must have gotten quite the fright. Knights who wished for Britain's revival had gathered in this town in order to claim the throne. Her elder brother Kay was the son of the once-great knight Ector. He was more than qualified to challenge the Sword of Selection.
A great multitude of knights stood before the Sword of Selection. They each attempted to pull the sword from the stone one at a time, yet they were only faced with dejection. Others watched from afar as the knights solemnly laid their hands on the sword's hilt, only to leave with their shoulders slumped with disappointment.
Some refused to give up, challenging over and over again. Some grumbled, insisting there must've been some sort of mistake. Some flaunted their brute strength, lifting the rock in its entirety. However, none of them could pull the sword from the stone.
Merlin—who served the king—was nowhere in sight.
The discouragement in the air spread throughout, assailing not only the knights but also the onlookers. Was there no knight in this country worthy of the throne? Did Britain have no future? To begin with, were Merlin's prophecies even true?
The knights, who sensed the onlookers' unease, began to talk amongst each other.
"Droves of us knights have gathered here today. There are many other ways we can determine our king."
They decided upon pure strength. The strongest of all knights should become King Uther's successor—the king of knights. Foregoing the sword, they began with methods of selection that suited their own benefit. First was jousting. A true knight of honour should excel in handling a lance on horseback and single combat. Artoria located Kay, who was loitering in displeasure due to having forgotten his lance and stealthily handed it to him.
"Kay. Are you certain about foregoing the Sword of Selection?"
"We've got no choice. As long as no one's able to pull it out, it's no more than decoration. We knights are about to hold a tournament. We've already made up our minds, so a squire like you shouldn't poke your nose in. This is a good middle ground. Besides, some of the knights are secretly enjoying all this."
"Even though a king hasn't been chosen?"
"They don't give a damn about Merlin and King Uther's fantastic tales. Rather than fussing over some immaterial proof of kingship, it'd be much more humanlike to measure how much power, money, and soldiers we have right now. The powerful don't need a leader. It'd be much easier if everyone worked together for their own gains, and it's easier to get people to work for their own self-interests. Most importantly, when push comes to shove, it'll be harder to identify where the blame lies. No one wants to see 'a prophet of God who will save us all’, nor does anyone want to become one."
"Do you think so too?"
"Of course. Now, go home. If the other knights see you, they'll make fun of you again. Think about the worry I endure when I have to step in all the time. Listen up, this is your first and final chance—head home obediently."
He took the lance and made for the farmland with the rest of the knights. In order to determine a leader for the time being, they'd already fashioned an arena for jousting.
The surrounding area fell dead silent.
Even though it was bustling with life just a moment ago, it was now completely deserted. The knights and the onlookers had departed. Not a single soul dared approach the sword in the stone. It's doubtful how many people even believed in the prophecy. The sword had been forsaken as if it had never even mattered in the first place.
"No one wants to see one... nor does anyone want to become one…"
She didn't condemn the people for their capriciousness, nor did she harbour any antagonism toward her brother's standpoint, because she understood that it was completely natural to think that way. Her upbringing was both complicated and special.
Why had she lived a life of deceit, pretending to be a man? Why had she learned the way of the sword, studied the governing of the country, and suppressed her human feelings from as far back as she could remember? It was obvious. It was all for this day. She was born to draw the king's sword from the stone. She didn't know what her true parents looked like. Uther and the Mage desired to create the 'perfect king', thus she was designed and birthed for that purpose. As a matter of fact, she was unable to empathise with her departed father's regrets and ambitions. She didn't feel a special sense of duty from the Mage's teachings, nor did she feel profoundly moved by them.
For the past fifteen years, it had been the uneventful everyday life with her foster family and the lively voices of the townsfolk that nourished and spurred her on. It wasn't longing, and it wasn't love either. It was just—reflected in her eyes—those things had simply seemed 'good'.
She had no aspirations of becoming one of the townsfolk, and she didn't dream of joining their community either. Though she fantasised about such things from time to time, she would simply calmly quell those thoughts, as she understood from the bottom of her heart that if that happened, she would end up losing everything. Despite lacking wisdom in her early days, she was earnest, so she convinced herself that she could never let that happen.
Just like a human is born as a human, a dragon has its own duty to fulfil.
"Jeez, your foul mouth is your only flaw. Thank you, Kay... my brother."
Ultimately, his words ended up teaching her a good lesson.
"But... I'm sorry. I don't know what the 'ideal king' that Ector spoke of is like."
No, she did in fact know what the kind of king he spoke of was deep down, and could even put it into practice. The ability to do so had been drilled into her, and she was bestowed with the greatest aptitude possible. But what a grave miscalculation. Until the end, she never truly understood that it was her.
Her driving force was unlike her predecessor King Uther's. She felt no human desire to rule, no sense of duty as a leader, and no enrapturement from belief. What drove her was a simple trifling thing. These past fifteen years of not being able to lead a human life were all she could ever wish for.
She had but a single reason to take up the sword: simply watching the people go about their lives gave her strength and encouraged her. Without having to put it into words, she was certain of what she wanted to do. That was the truly human reason the girl called Artoria sought the throne.
She silently laid her hand on the sword's hilt. From afar, she could hear the distant sounds of valiant cavalry. The knights' tumult was far away, and there was no one else near the stone. It felt like watching a festival take place from the outside. It had always been like this: she had always been no more than a bystander, so she felt no torment for being all by herself.
The sword's hilt was shockingly easy to grasp. The seething feeling from within her body that she never knew how to control, that always felt like it would burst forth from inside her, was sucked into the sword, and she felt her body grow lighter. A simple tug of her hand and the sword would come loose. She drew a breath and—
"You had better think twice before you take that sword."
The next thing she knew, the unfamiliar Mage stood before her very eyes. In truth, they had already met countless times. This was simply their first time meeting in the real world. The Mage began to address her as he had done in the past.
"I'm saying this for your own sake—you had better stop. The moment you draw that sword, you shall cease to be human. Furthermore, you will be scorned by a great breadth of people, and shall certainly meet a tragic end."
Her expression was clouded with fear. An expected outcome. After all, rather than simply using words, the Mage had projected an image of the future into her consciousness. It was not a warning, but a prophecy. If she drew that sword, she would be destined to die a tragic death of solitude.
...Looking back on it, he wondered why he'd done such a thing. This prophecy wasn't part of the plan he and Uther had developed. He was to simply give her a nudge on the back—to encourage her to take the throne.
Well, there was no use weeping over spilt milk. In fear of her own future, she would likely reconsider. Would she lose her nerve, thinking it's too early to take the throne? Or would she flee from the path of kingship altogether? So be it. Whichever she chose, it would all work out in the end. The Mage decided to take his leave, resolving to instead present her with the kingship at another chance but—
"...No." She had made up her mind.
"Are you truly sure?" the Mage asked her.
Her golden hair fluttered in the wind, its lustre lost due to the rustic lifestyle she had lived. Without looking back, she firmly nodded.
At this point, she still had fear. She did not fear her own fate, but whether she had made the right decision. She was afraid there was someone more worthy to pull the sword from the stone, that someone else was more fitting to be the promised king than she was. If so, they would surely be able to create a more harmonious Britain than she ever could. But no such person existed, at least not for the next few decades. Until that time came, someone else had to succeed the throne.
If she pulled the sword from the stone, she'd become a completely different person. Everything she had ever feared before would be left in the past. This was a ceremony in which her self would be killed.
A king with a human heart is unable to protect his people. That is because being a king means killing countless people to protect your own. At her tender age, she would spend her nights ceaselessly trembling in fear, reflecting on this until the day broke. Not a single day went by where she hadn't lived in fear of it; but now, that too would be left in the past. No matter how many times she was shunned, feared, and betrayed, her heart would no longer change.
To live for the people. To live with the people. To lead the people to their future.
That is what it means to rule a country. That is what it means to lay the proof of kingship bare. That is what it means to conduct a king's duty. For those she held most dear, she bade farewell to those she saw in her dreams.
"Many people were smiling. I do not believe that is a mistake."
Who would ever know of her noble oath? She chose to fight. No matter what awaited her. Still, she chose to fight. Even if she was destined for a solitary demise.
She drew the sword.
"I see.. so you have chosen to tread a path of thorns..."
Seemingly troubled, the Mage turned his face away. However, in truth, her decision filled him with joy. He was certain it would be truly fascinating. After all, while the path she would tread would surely be ripe with hardship, he was convinced it would be filled with various ups and downs. He simply wanted to see something beautiful; that was all there was to it.
And so, wickedly yet innocently—
"Remember, King Arthur, bringing about a miracle requires recompense. In exchange, you shall lose that which you hold most dear."
—he brazenly delivered his first prophecy to the new king.
Tales of the Knights
I'm not fond of old tales. To be specific, I'm not fond of other people's old tales. There's no fun in hearing people boast about their own achievements. Hell, if I had the time for that, I'd rather spend it swimming with salmon instead. No, I'm not saying I like salmon. If I had to swim, it'd only be with a woman—a fine one at that. But if all you want to do is listen to my tale, then I'll bear with it for a bit. I'll try to mimic what the poets do. If I practice enough, it might help me woo some dull-witted woman down the line.
We became family at five years old. No, not me. I meant her age. I figured she'd one day grow up to be a stunner, but my old man told her that I was to guide her as my little brother. I did as he said, and treated her as such. Well, I thought it'd be damn near impossible to keep it secret though.
King Uther was a man above other men, but in the end, he was a man all the same. The Saxons aside, he probably foresaw that he'd be defeated by the Picts in the north and by Vortigern in their eventual battle. And so he decided his successor must not be merely above other men, but something that was detached from humanity itself. A hybrid of man and dragon. The incarnation of the king born into a human mould.
Merlin was smitten with the idea. He was probably running around the castle all giddy with his hands in the air. Huh? I'm blowing it out of proportion even though I wasn't even there? I'm not speculating here. I'm absolutely certain that's what happened. You mages and your lot are nuts about the novel, the reckless, and the unimaginable.
Anyway, that's how the raw material of the king secretly came to be. King Uther's blood, the dragon's blood, and the blood of the noblewoman most suited to bind them together. There wasn't a shred of romance. No exchanging of letters, and no nightly trysts either. It was done solely to produce results. You telling me they had love? Like hell they did. You're inhuman precisely because you can't even comprehend that.
That is how Artor—King Arthur was born. It's called Conceptual Fertilisation in the world of magecraft, or so they say. It wasn't transforming a dragon into a man, but rather, furnishing a human with a dragon's functions. She was originally human, but something abnormal was mixed inside.
"The king is not the dragon's incarnation—his very heart is a single dragon. The magical energy he was born with is on a completely different scale to ours. Do not seek human values from one who possesses magical energy akin to the gods."
Agravain often told the knights that. Of course, I agree to a certain extent. You can't expect someone like that to grow up as a proper human being, at least normally. Yet it was in that sense that she wasn't normal at all. Back when she was a pipsqueak, everything about her was normal, except for that. It may seem hard to believe now, but she was no different from the other girls in town. She was trained by my dad, so she had her etiquette down to a tee; but when she went to the town, she would naturally blend into the surroundings. She was just a simple town girl. Nothing more, nothing less.
Yeah, she'd been a sore loser since birth. It wasn't because she got frustrated over losing to someone else though, it was because she got frustrated at her own pitiful self. But even if she lost heart, she'd always be back on her feet in no time. She had no time to waste licking her own wounds. She was insanely optimistic but really easy to hurt. I'd say it's because she was too honest to just let things slide. The knights outside the castle often said she had a heart of iron, but that's not true, it was built of reed. She got discouraged when she was hurt, but her heart has never been broken. That's the kinda fellow she was. On top of that, she was under my old man's strict guidance for ten years, so it's no wonder she became the ideal king. She was nothing but trouble for me though.
I wasn't there when she drew the sword. I even thought that she should just do whatever she wanted. Isn't it obvious? Why should I have to warn her, when she's been slyly handed everything on a silver platter the moment she was born? I've got no reason to stop her. She's free to do whatever the hell she wants.
You should know more than me about what happened next. I absolutely refuse to talk about the time when we were journeying around the country and training after she drew the sword though. If I have to recall my memories of all the trouble you two caused me, I might end up slashing at you from my years of pent-up grudges.
After finishing her training and mastering Caliburn, she finally began to present herself as king. Her beginnings were humble. She started by rescuing a tribe and making a base. My old man taught her that laying the groundwork was essential after all. To defeat Vortigern, it was ideal to raise an army equal to his without rousing his attention.
We've had eleven battles with the Saxons so far, but back when it all started it was just you and me on the Round Table, huh? From then on, things advanced steadily. She reintroduced the once lost cataphracts, and quite literally galloped through the battlefield freely, crushing the Saxon footsoldiers and breaking through countless barricades. Jeez, an unbefitting way of warfare, especially considering how much she loved tending to the horses.
What? Soldiers died too though, not just horses? Soldiers are fine. They fight to protect their nation and families. In other words, they act with survival in mind. But horses are different. They've got nothing to do with human quarrels. They never even question why they're running and why they're dying. It's an entirely different sin than letting soldiers die. At least that's how it was to her.
It was after emerging victorious in one of those battles that the name of King Arthur gained renown throughout the land.
Ah, right. Along the way, a certain someone's philandering ended up getting her ensnared in one of Morgan's traps, and she ended up losing the Sword of Selection. Oh? That was a necessary ritual to obtain Excalibur? I don't give a rat's arse. Back then, watching her march as she tried to conceal the fact that she had lost her Holy Sword from everyone was way too hilarious. She was pale as a ghost. I ended up once again having to make a wooden sculpture of a tiny bird catching salmon.
And Morgan. She used to be such a fine woman, so how the hell'd she get all screwed up in the head? Just when you think she's as pure as a fairy, she becomes as splendid as a warrior maiden, then the next thing you know, she's as cruel as a witch. I can only think of it as three different women existing within her. Well, she is King Uther's proper daughter, so she might've had some special circumstances of her own too. Ever since Camelot was constructed, she'd been unable to overcome her hatred for King Arthur, even until the very end. Speaking of, I actually haven't heard about her recently.
Eh, whatever. Back to where we were. Vortigern finally got off his arse and began preparing for the decisive battle. She took back the citadel that Vortigern had been using as his stronghold. I believe it was only Sir Gawain, fellow wielder of a Holy Sword that fought alongside her in this battle.
Thus was the Vile King defeated and the fortress reclaimed. And that became this castle of chalk: Camelot of the Round Table. Camelot Castle was constructed, and King Arthur's reign finally began in earnest.
It's been ten years since then. We've both certainly had our plates full since then, aye? You were messing around with women, calling yourself the king's advisor. Meanwhile, I went chasing after women's bums whenever I had time away from my duties as a member of the Round Table. King Arthur mediated between the squabbling lords and skilfully put an end to the battle with the Saxons. Just as the previous king aspired, the ideal king was born.
On the other hand, it seems like my unfound worries were all for naught. I thought that at least a single knight would voice their opinion, but alas, even now that things have come to this, not a single knight has questioned that lie. The fastidious knights that serve the castle of chalk', that rubbish isn't even worth a laugh anymore. In the end, no one truly acknowledged King Arthur from the bottom of their hearts.
Why would they? She stopped ageing because of the Holy Sword's power. She hasn't aged since the day she drew the sword from the stone. There were certainly many knights who feared it as ominous, but the vast majority extolled it as the arcane. They secretly scorned her, wondering how much longer this child would continue to play king, and prepared for the inevitable power struggle after her downfall.
King Arthur was not a king that had been accepted by all. She was a transient king, only accepted when her reign was proceeding smoothly. As long as she was a capable king, the people were willing to mostly ignore the elements of her reign that unsettled them. Even if someone were to find out about her true identity, they would simply keep their mouth shut as long as she remained competent. They revered the ideal king, but the moment they realised that ideal could not save everyone, they thrust all the blame onto her.
This is the result of that. Once King Arthur returns from Rome, she will likely be met with an army raised by Mordred. I'm sick of all this foolish infighting. I'll come up with some reason and leave it all behind. Maybe I'll join hands with that fellow womaniser Lancelot—no, not that. Anything but that.
Yeah, I'll just set sail for another land and take it easy. With the fortune I've amassed, there's no longer any need to fight. You intend on fleeing to Avalon too, right? That's enough idle chatter. You'd best get going, or else you'll be branded an opportunist and executed.
One last thing? You want to know what I think about King Arthur?
Right. I had something I wanted to ask you too. Ever since she began to gain awareness, she spent most of her day being trained by my old man and educated to be a king. The only free time afforded to her—the time she should've spent sleeping—she spent tending to the horses and patrolling the village. Throughout her entire life, she never even got to experience the very thing she wanted to protect.
Nothing has ever chilled me to the marrow as that did. I'm a man that could cut off a giant's head if I was asked to, but even I ended up grimacing. Back when we were still living with my old man, I was just so disgusted that I couldn't hold my tongue.
"Hey. When are you going to sleep?"
"Do not worry, brother. I will be sound asleep from dawn until sunrise,” she said with a smile.
'From dawn until sunrise', huh. That isn't even three hours. I was truly exasperated, but it also became a good opportunity. A good opportunity to learn that nothing good would come out of getting involved with an overly serious fool like her.
But later on, I met you and learned the truth. Even in her dreams, she was being taught the way of the king by the incubus mage.
“How laughable. In other words, she hadn't even been sleeping at all."
No one else knows this though. And so, as I behold the end of our country, I find myself thinking—
"What a load of drivel. Just what did she want to do so badly that she had to go that far?"
02. The Light of the Planet
After defeating Vortigern, King Arthur began the reconstruction of the ruined citadel. With the return of the Holy Sword's wielder, it regained its arcana and was reborn as the Chalk Castle of Camelot. King Arthur's reign over Britain, ranging from Camelot's inception to the Battle of Camlann, lasted ten years. While battles with the foreign tribes Vortigern had beckoned still continued, it was mostly a peaceful time. The conflict with the Picts of the north had ended, the vigour of the Saxons had waned, and the relationship with the knights who were now lords had been preserved.
It could be said that this was the final age of romance on this planet. The island's twilight period, when arcana, magecraft, fairies and sanctuaries still endured. A time during which most of the legends of the Knights of the Round Table unfolded.
"Having an administrative office is certainly an asset, but isn't it a little too lavish? This is hardly any different to the Round Table. A plain unadorned room is far more to my liking..."
With a reluctant look on her face, she placed her hands on the ornate desk, polished to the point of reflection. As someone who had always stood on the battlefield, life at the castle was too luxurious for her to settle down.
"King Arthur, a grandiose lifestyle is yet another duty of the king. About eighty percent of Camelot was built by fairies, not humans, so there shouldn't be a problem, no? It's not as if the people's hard-earned taxes were used for it either."
"Is that so? Then does that mean the ones labouring day and night on castle repairs are..."
"Half of them are earth fairies disguised as humans, while the other half are human craftsmen who are well aware of this but pretend not to notice."
"Oh my. I was under the impression that the fairies had left the surface for the Fairy Kingdom, leaving behind only the giants and demonic beasts that despise humans."
"You are correct, the fairies have indeed fled to the Reverse Side of the World. However, an opening still exists for them to enter and exit, though that will close in time as well. The idea that giants hate humans is a misconception. They are merely unable to enter spirit form like fairies do and remain confined by their physical restraints. As such, their inability to travel to the Reverse Side leaves them stranded on the surface. Living in fear of extinction by human civilisation, they barely scrape by." "What about dragons? Is the dragon that protects Britain still somewhere on this Earth?" she asked out of genuine curiosity.
Instead of a sense of sympathy for the dragon that could be considered her parent, she merely felt a pure, child-like longing to lay her eyes on that magnificent being.
"That dragon had long since descended by the advent of the Common Era. Having slept for 500 years, it must have turned into stone and permeated into the ground by now. Its soul however has already reached the Reverse Side. All that's left is for the body it left behind to turn into oil and other minerals."
"I see. As expected, you're very knowledgeable, Merlin."
"Of course, I am your mentor in magecraft and the arcane after all. There is still so much I have yet to teach you. With that said, your current duty is that of kingship. It seems that the Saxons are about to cross the sea again. Their numbers continue to increase, never dwindling. Who is holding the South at present?"
"Sir Tristan and Bedivere. With their current supplies, they should be able to last a month."
"Ah... Bedi being there means Tristan will have to be diligent as well. I feel a little bad for Bedi but they're a good combo."
"That is incorrect, Merlin. Sir Tristan has always been a diligent man. It's just that his sensibilities lean to the poetic side, making it seem like he's constantly consoling women. The only dishonest ones are you and Sir Kay."
"How could this be! You actually think that I'm as hollow as Kay, even though I'm your mentor! That's a misunderstanding, Artoria. It's true that I have many loves, but every single one of them is an eternal pledge. I'm not gloomy like Sir Tristan, nor do I forget the next day like Kay. I simply partake in liaisons of mutual love; my sights set on bringing happiness to everyone involved."
"Is that so? That was Agravain's appraisal of you. He may be taciturn, but his eye for character is second to none."
"That hurts me even more! I can't believe you'd trust that gloomy corpse of a man over me! But well, it's certainly true that he embodies the perfect secretary: he possesses sharp insight, is very meticulous and doesn't crave power! The best thing about the Knights of the Round Table is that they're all oddballs, there really never is a dull moment!" A relic known as the 'Round Table' existed in Camelot. Quite literally a circular table, the knights sat around it were equals sworn by an oath, unbound by rank or status. It was originally a Mystic Code that represented bonds, a proof of heroes that was reforged for Camelot. The Round Table served as the cornerstone of the castle itself, acting as the basis for its manifestation in the world. If King Arthur's Holy Sword provided the energy that sustains the castle, the Round Table was the pillar that anchors it.
There were thirteen seats, of which one was filled by King Arthur himself. While some of the seats remained unclaimed at the moment, the day would eventually come when all twelve knights assembled. The reason for the seats numbering thirteen and not twelve was the existence of the seat known as "Siege Perilous". Due to the inauspicious number thirteen, no one was eager to sit on it. As such, it was thought that there would only ever be twelve knights. No one believed that someone airheaded... or rather, brave enough to do it would appear.
The Tristan that she had mentioned earlier was King Rivalen's son, also known as the child of sorrow. Due to certain reasons, the beautiful man had become a wandering knight. It was said that even fairies grew bashful of their appearances in his presence, opting to hide in the bushes to straighten themselves up. A shame undoubtedly, but it was true. His alluring gaze alone pierced women faster than any arrow could. Tristan may have been the Round Table's foremost wielder of the bow, but one would be hard-pressed to call 'that thing' a bow. Expert bowmen from around the world would no doubt protest that he fundamentally misunderstood what a bow actually was.
Agravain was King Arthur's blood relative. To be more exact, he was the child of Arthur's sister Morgan, who had inherited King Uther's blood, and became a Knight of the Round Table using that connection. Despite being a cold, apathetic person that didn't display his emotions outwardly, King Arthur valued and trusted him for his impartiality. He was disliked amongst the other knights for sending soldiers to their deaths without batting an eye. However, none were able to object strongly to him as his personal life was without a speck of impurity. He rarely fought on the frontlines, but when push came to shove, he returned unscathed no matter the strength of the enemy, earning him the moniker 'Agravain the Woundless'.
The Knights of the Round Table were no doubt worthy of their fame as heroes. With that said, they were not all of equal strength, and none of them matched up to King Arthur either. It was a matter of mental fortitude, not tenacity.
The Vile King had been overthrown and the barbarism of the foreign tribes had also been put in check. But Britain's future remained bleak and people's lives unchanged. Indeed, the fact this was the case despite removing the cause of the Dark Ages had in itself resulted in malice sprouting in their hearts.
Wasn't King Arthur supposed to be the shining king? Wasn't the country supposed to flourish if we followed what he said?
"Blaming me is fully warranted. The harvest this year has been poor, and the blessings of the forest have been constantly dwindling as well. Sharing the forest with the foreign tribes is unfeasible. We have no choice but to purchase our crops from the neighbouring countries. It seems I'm in need of Sir Lancelot's aid again..."
"That isn't the problem, this island was poor from the start. The reason the people of Britain are falling into darkness is that the Radiant Tower can no longer be seen."
"The Radiant Tower? You mean the Holy Lance Rhongomyniad?"
"Yes. Speaking of that, I have yet to explain the relationship the Holy Sword and Holy Lance have with each other. The Holy Sword is a Divine Construct forged and given birth to within this planet, created with the anticipation of a foreign enemy capable of destroying the planet. It's a sword to protect the planet, not a weapon to protect humans. Of course, it can be used against the foreign tribes, but its original purpose is to defeat 'destruction.' As such..."
"Its true power cannot be unleashed, save for in a battle to save the world, right? There's no need for you to be concerned with that. Setting the Sword of Selection Caliburn aside, the Golden Sword Excalibur is way too powerful. To risk scorching the ground as a result of the destruction of the foreign tribes would be putting the cart before the horse."
"That's right. The light of the planet must only be used for critical moments. Should there come a time when you fight not as a king, but as a lone hero, make sure to never forget that. Wielding the Holy Sword without thought will surely come back to bite you. You may be unharmed, durable as you are, but the same cannot be said for the people around you."
"Merlin, I listen to you obediently as you speak the truth, but could you please stop referring to people as if they're lumps of iron?"
"My apologies. Next up is the Holy Lance. Rather than defeating foreign enemies, its purpose is to stabilise the planet... or to be more specific, anchor it. The Fairy Kingdom you mentioned earlier isn't in a completely different world. It is right beneath you, in the Reverse Side of the World that is separated from us by merely a thin sheet.”
"Beneath me, you say... You mean underground?"
"You can think of it that way. Essentially, beneath the foundation that is 'your world', there exists a gap which is the 'Fairy Kingdom', with the Earth's surface underneath. The Fairy Kingdom and your world are both nothing more than layers. Textures. Each of them are outward appearances attached to the Earth's surface.”
"Textures... So you mean Britain?"
"Not just Britain, it encompasses the entire world. In fact, Britain is pretty special. Artoria, what you can see with your eyes isn't everything.
When you humans attained the Seat of Primacy, the fairies foresaw that the state of the planet would change, and accepted it. The planet alters its physical laws according to the beings that live on its surface. As such, the era that was brimming with arcana and magical energy began to decline gradually upon humans becoming the greatest power. Gods, nature in the possession of personalities, became mere natural phenomena, and the ether in the air dispersed. The passing of Solomon, the King of Magecraft, accelerated this decline of the arcane.
And five hundred years ago, the Age of Gods finally came to an end. This planet became independent of nature, its ownership passed on to animals that could survive even outside of the natural cycle. Yes, to put it in simple terms, you humans. The intelligence... or the mentality that humans had acquired was directed towards illuminating the darkness of 'uncertain laws'.
As a result, the planet's rules were altered to become 'laws that best suit human life'. Both dragons and fairies are infringements of this rule. Because of that, they left to inhabit the Reverse Side of the World, ceding the surface to you. The only ones remaining are those who lacked the power to migrate or those who refused to accept their end. The former are harmless but the latter pose a grave threat to humans. These powerful individuals are able to survive despite the loss of the magical energy in the air, with the potential of being threats to mankind for centuries.
Anyway, you've become the representatives of this planet. But still, it's just a thin layer that can easily be peeled away. When you have a piece of cloth about to be blown away by the wind, what do you do? Leave it as it is? Obviously not. You pin it so that it doesn't come undone.
The Holy Lance is what anchors the texture of the human world to the planet. The lance that shines at the world's end. The pillar that protects the primates, the Holy Lance Rhongomyniad."
Her eyes went wide, but not because the mage's words were too large in scale. Rather... the lance in question had already been bestowed upon her.
"B-But, if it's such an important item, then why was it given to me?"
"That's because you're the king of Britain. Listen up, this island is special. The continent has already become a part of the human world. As the countries are joined by land, the change in physical laws is swift. But this island is different. Even now, the atmosphere of the Age of Gods, its arcana, remains.
It's a characteristic of a small island country. The more isolated it is from the mainland, the easier it is for the arcane to remain. Britannia is of particular importance. It's like the navel of the planet. To those that live in arcana, it's a holy land akin to a heart.
Therefore, if there was someone who wished to fill the planet with ether once more, their workshop would no doubt be built on this island. Containing the last vestiges of the Age of Gods, it could serve as the fulcrum to flip the entire world upside down. The Holy Lance exists in order to 'stake the world' and prevent that from happening. To protect Britain is to seal a world of magecraft.”
She felt worn out from the bottom of her heart. Looking at her hands that had carelessly received the lance, she gulped her breath down.
"But Merlin, I have that lance with me. Does that mean the world is no longer being anchored?"
"No, the Tower of the End is intact even now. The people are unable to see it because you have possession of it. The Radiant Tower shining beyond the horizon rests in your hands now. Don't you feel excited? It's almost like you've suddenly become a god!"
"No way, I have to give this back immediately! But wait, I can't leave it to you either! I'm sure you'll stick it in some random rock just to confuse people for your own amusement!"
"Hahaha, that's spot on. So make sure you hold onto it properly. But well, the Holy Lance that Vivian forced on you is more like a shadow. As long as it's not handed over to someone who would use it for evil... like Vortigern, there should be no problem.”
The mention of Vortigern's name alone cast a shadow over her face that had been so cheerful just a second ago. The mage had cut their idle talk short with his carelessness.
"What is it? Are you still concerned about what Vortigern said?"
She nodded quietly in affirmation.
"Britain will perish. But grieve not, for you will fall at Britain's own hands without ever witnessing its end."
Those were the words left behind by the Vile King before he burned to ashes. The only solace was that her retainer Gawain was the only other person to hear what he said.
"Oh, dear. Well, it's only natural. Everyone thought that defeating the Vile King would restore Britain's harmony. But the result was different. The absence of the Vile King did not put an end to conflict."
It was a bad habit of the mage. There was no need to cloud her mind at this point, but he was driven by a sudden curiosity to find out what form her anguish would take.
"The bad harvest will continue this year, and in the next one too. The people may rejoice at the decrease in conflict, but nevertheless, there will be those who remain unsatisfied. For what reason did they fight to the death driving off the foreign tribes? Of course, it was only to ensure luxurious lives upon their return. There were even some within the knights that selfishly criticised you.
People may hold the truth in esteem, but go too far and it's a different story. As long as King Arthur remains the people's ideal, they will rely on him, while shunning him at the same time. You must absorb all these things, or trample over them to rule. The only things you are granted are injustice and misunderstandings. However, the more of them there are, the more stable the people's lives will be. The rulers and the ruled. Human beings are creatures that can only find happiness on one of those sides."
The mage spoke with a wicked smile on his face.
“That is what it means to be a king. The dignity of a king in the eyes of the people is different to what he actually harbours. The more he ponders their lives, the more his heart will wallow in despair.”
"So... the more I suffer, the more the country will prosper?"
"Yes. That is something you are aware of, no? You were aware of it and still decided to draw the Sword of Selection after all." So it'd benefit you to hurry up and cut off your human feelings, becoming an otherworldly being like Uther. At the very least, your suffering will cease to hurt you. That in turn, will also mould you into the ideal king. King Arthur will continue to reign as he always has, but no longer will his insides be whittled away at.”
Truth be told, the mage was serious in his attempt to entice her. He thought that it would be amusing. Or perhaps, even before she did herself, the mage was unable to stand this sight any longer. But she didn't play along with his expectations, giving an answer that he did not expect. With a joyful smile on her face, she said, "Yes. I have faith that I'm doing well in that regard. Please watch me, Merlin. I can't say it will be soon, but I will definitely turn this island into a prosperous country. One that can even measure up to the utopia spoken of in the legends, Avalon."
As if feeling happy from the bottom of her heart, she puffed out her chest in pride.
It was at this moment that the mage realised his mistake. Being 'king' was of no importance to her. She drew the sword for the lives of the people. From the very beginning, her dignity as king was not something she had ever considered.
He and the previous king Uther had made a tremendous blunder. He realised just how far apart their wishes actually were, and at the same moment, discerned that he had underestimated Artoria severely. If she continued on this path, she would face nothing but regrets.
It'll be alright if I stop her then.
Utterly ashamed at his own repulsive conceit, the mage fumbled to make amends, but it was already too late.
"Avalon might be a little too grand. Even I've never been there before."
A bitter smile on his face, the mage averted his eyes from her.
I am unable to express the sense of loss I felt at the time. A radiance that I had sought for a long time, but never thought I'd ever find. I came to realise that I had been blessed with it for a while but unknowingly crushed it with my own hands. On that day of selection, did I really have the right to question her resolve? I am the most foolish mage in this world. That girl was overflowing with the qualities of a king. Such an appalling mistake, and yet I shamelessly believed it to be right.
Tales of the Knights
I have never doubted the king's power. His spirit, technique, and power are faultless, and not once has he erred in his judgement as king. He is, without a doubt, the embodiment of the ideal knight. Though the people may have erroneously surmised so, he was not conferred with the moniker 'King of Knights' simply because he was both a king and a knight. In truth, he was referred to as 'King of Knights' because he was worthy of the worship and allegiance of every Briton knight.
Lord Merlin may have said that the Round Table was not bound by hierarchy, but in reality, we were gathered in order to serve and revere the king. Without our king, the Round Table would be rid of its solidarity. If remaining undefeated is a precondition of kingship, then beyond a shadow of a doubt, our king is the undefeated god of war. It was by virtue of our king's majesty that we emerged victorious in countless battles despite being inferior in military strength; because as I followed in his footsteps every time he led us through the battlefield, I grew certain of Britain's splendid future.
But... just once— just once did I fear for his certain victory, unable to do anything but stand back and watch.
It was the battle with the Vile King, Vortigern. He beckoned the foreign tribes in, endeavouring to claim Britain for himself; he was an even greater fiend than we Knights of the Round Table could have ever imagined. Driving back the foreign tribes that occupied the citadel, we and the king made our way to the throne room that the Vile King had barricaded himself in. Vortigern stood alone against us. On our side, we had the unscathed king and the most elite of our soldiers.
The soldiers believed that the battle had already been won. All of them, myself included, let our guards down because of that foolish sentiment. If the king's sword was the accumulation of our planet's light, then mine was a mimic of the sun, an iron hammer that scorched the wicked. With both the king and myself present on the battlefield, who could've predicted that defeat was possible?
Indeed, naught but a single soul could see through to the Vile King's true power: his fellow king, King Arthur.
"Why do you oppose me? Why do you refuse to accept it? Why do you cling to your humanity? Britain must be razed. You must all be eradicated. If this island is destined to one day be tainted by mankind, I shall return it to its genesis by my very own hands. I must plunge Great Britain into hell—transform it into a paradise of darkness uninhabitable by man forevermore."
Before the decaying throne stood a dark, shadowy silhouette. His armour was tainted with black, and he was clad in shadow despite it only being midday. It was... a hole in the world itself. He swallowed the seething, molten iron down, storing it in his belly. He became... something so inhuman that it sent a chill running down my spine.
The Dragon Vortigern. That was the true form of the being that would have led Britain to ruin.
Our hesitation spelt our doom. A single blow unleashed by the Vile King obliterated our forces and stripped me of my power. It was a devourer of Holy Swords. A darkness that grew deeper the holier its foe was. My Holy Sword Galatine was robbed of its radiance. Excalibur, the king's Holy Sword, was similar. Its radiance was reduced to that of a faintly glimmering bonfire.
"Well done, Knight of the Sun, the stalwart Sir Gawain. Behold, your light appears to be more than he can stomach."
The king grinned at me, telling me that Vortigern couldn't swallow Excalibur's light because he had taken in Galatine's, and then proceeded to confront Vortigern by himself. But it was the opposite. I narrowly managed to escape death only because he immediately rushed to my aid. It was my fault that Excalibur lost most of its radiance, and even that would soon fade as well. It was impossible for that faint glimmer to continue shining amidst that raging tempest. We had been utterly reliant on that blinding light, so with it extinguished, all that came to mind was to pray in the darkness.
However, despite being at the limit of my capabilities, predicaments such as these were commonplace for the king. The faint glimmer persisted on, our final respite within the whirling tempest.
The battle continued for several hours.
When the throne collapsed, the dragon beckoned dark clouds forth with his bellow, destroying the entire fortress while expanding to a colossal size. The dragon's neck manifested, engulfing the soldiers' weapons, corpses, and the fortress ruins.
The king must have known… He must have known that Vortigern was Britain itself. Vortigern was the Vile King that appeared as the island's will and avatar. The ruler of a small tribe who drank the blood of a dragon and had long since lost his humanity. Despite the king's immense magical energy and his Holy Sword that could scorch the land, his enemy was all of Britain itself given form.
It was evident to all that defeat was inevitable. It was like an ant attempting to challenge a human. Having recovered, I advised retreat while watching the king's back. But acting as if there were nothing out of the ordinary, he swallowed down his fear and raised his gaze to the sky.
"I shall bid your aid for a while longer, Sir Gawain. The two of us stand here together. What kind of wielders of Holy Swords would we be if we could not quell one or two fits of the island?"
He flashed a calm smile, directed at both himself and me. Feeling my once dwindled will to fight reigniting throughout my body, I once again rose to oppose the dragon with him. We staked our Holy Swords into both of his hands, slightly restraining his movement. We had managed to bring about an opportunity for victory, but we no longer had our weapons. If we drew our Holy Swords out, the dragon would once again take to the skies.
It was then that the king brandished the radiant lance. A spiral of light pierced through the crucified dragon's heart, upon which he roared a bellow of death and began to disintegrate. The miracle that the king had wrought left me so confounded I could do nothing but gaze in wonder.
...How much time had passed? The dark clouds gave rise to rain, steeping the fortress in the sound of rainfall. Before the king was a single man on the brink of death, his chest pierced with a lance. Vortigern. The shadow he was clad in disappeared, and so did the boundless tyranny that had emerged from him. It all vanished without a single trace. All that remained was a pitiful aged man writhing in agony.
"So they even granted you Rhongomyniad. Damned fools... so you would beckon an even greater ruin forth to slay a tyrant. Spawn of Uther, little brother of mine; you will not be able to save this country; you will not triumph over mankind. Because—”
Unabated by the sound of rainfall, the aged man's voice clearly resounded.
He began to draw closer, a single step at a time.
“Because the Age of the Arcane has already come to an end. Beyond lies the Age of Civilization—the Age of Man. The power that lies in your essence is incompatible with mankind. As long as you live, Britain has no future. Scorn your fate. The Britain of old has long since fallen into ruin."
With downcast eyes, the king pulled the spear from his chest. Vortigern was laughing. It was a boisterous laughter, like that of a swirling gale. From where had he drawn the strength to manage that? He returned to the throne, laughing so boisterously it was almost as if the fortress itself was shaking. Thus did the Vile King perish, and our king raised his Holy Sword and proclaimed our victory.
The rain ceased, and from the rift between the dark clouds returned the grace of the sun. As he heralded the end of our battle, he was brimming with even more light than usual. All who laid their eyes on that silhouette of his were struck with admiration for the king's power and grew certain that prosperity was promised in the future.
Of course, I was one of them. I did not understand what their exchange signified, but the king's victory was something to delight in. Although he was even more exhausted than I was, he didn't show a single indication of it as he made his triumphant return. As I watched him from behind, I proudly told him that all that remained was to deal with the foreign tribes. That was how sublime the battle was.
Britain may be beset by turmoil to this day, but as long as King Arthur is with us, there is nothing to fear.
03. The Waning Sun
After Vortigern's death, the insurrection within Britain came to an end for the time being. Camelot's construction was completed, the Round Table was filled, and King Arthur took Queen Guinevere's hand in marriage. Needless to say, it was only a marriage in form. The king had laid the truth of her gender bare to Guinevere, and Guinevere accepted it, as it was all for the sake of Britain.
No, she had no choice but to accept it, the intelligent woman that she was. She was aware of the indomitable might King Arthur had displayed during the quelling of the insurrection, and she truly revered the king from the bottom of her heart. After all, she had been yearning for the king from the shadows for the entire decade that passed between the selection and Vortigern's demise. The mage couldn't even imagine how she felt on that night, when the feelings she harboured for a decade finally bore fruit, only to be faced with the truth.
Did it feel like finally having her beloved in the palm of her hands, only to find out it was all a sham, and that it would be unattainable for all eternity? Did she feel betrayed and despair? Or did she feel sympathy for the king's plight? She likely felt both. Despite knowing the truth, she aptly supported the king and conducted herself as a queen. She was the bride who was blessed by all, but in truth, she thought of herself as a caged bird.
This constantly weighed on the king's mind, but—
"What do you mean, Artoria? Are you not the same? You too shall never be rewarded a woman's happiness." she said with a strained smile.
The king had no choice but to indulge in her virtue. Although their relationship was transient, the camaraderie fostered between them during the time they spent together was genuine; and this mutual trust convinced the people that they were an intimate married couple.
Camelot was filled with hustle and bustle at the queen's arrival. The long-awaited appointment of Sir Lancelot into the Round Table had finally come. Agravain remained reluctant until the end, but Sir Lancelot's status as a foreign feudal lord proved to be of great import. Trade with the continent proceeded more harmoniously than ever before as a result of his mediation.
This was the time when the tales of the Round Table began to truly blossom. As the conflict with the foreign tribes started to die down, the Knights of the Round Table began to make their way around the country, resolving any problems they came across. They all saw each other as rivals and would use any pretext they could come up with to test their might and cross swords, but they were undoubtedly worthy of praise. The mage also set forth on adventures with the knights, causing a slew of problems with women in the process. He was promptly scolded by the king, but I shall elect to leave that part out.
It was spoken of as 'Camelot of Flowers' in the ages to come. In truth, no matter how far Britain had fallen into decay, Camelot was the only place that was always brimming with smiles and hope. The people believed in King Arthur's authority, and the knights boasted of their own accomplishments; but the king simply continued to suffer alone, constantly gazing at the harsh reality.
No flower blooms for all eternity. Camelot was prospering, but on the other hand, Britain was on a steady decline. The mage advised the king that only vestiges of the arcana that had once dwelled in Britain's land remained.
"You mean to say the desolation of our land was not caused solely by the invasion of the foreign tribes?"
"I am loath to say, but that is correct. This island is a foreign country isolated from the mainland. Despite the arcane fading away from this planet with the advent of the Common Era, the air of the Age of Gods is still markedly potent here. That is why the Picts, dragons, succubi, and incubi exist here. The people of Britain also belong to this classification. It is not only the foreign tribes that encroach on our land. The very land itself is transforming. I reckon the poor harvests shall continue until you all meet your end. Only the vicinity of Camelot remains bountiful, but that too shall soon fade."
"Do you mean to say we must find a new way to live? That we must raise foreign crops, accept foreign blood—change the very way of the island altogether?"
"I simply meant to say that it is one viable path. The decision does not rest solely on your shoulders, after all. Besides, pardon my ill humour, but no matter what decision you make, it won't change much. Whether you choose to oppose the foreign tribes 'til the end or you choose to accept them, our destination has already been set."
For a moment, the king's face clouded with anguish, but she immediately regained her usual dignity.
"At any rate, we need time. Whether we choose to persevere or embrace change, we must first drive the foreign tribes away. They have no regard for anything but their invasion."
"Indubitably. However, though you speak of the land's restoration once the invasion has been staved off, do you truly believe we can win, King Arthur?"
"Of course. We have no replenishment for our supplies, right? Then we shall simply fight with what we have now."
At the same time as the king's decision came the re-invasion of the foreign tribes, who were still invading despite the demise of Vortigern. Vortigern was no more than a monster, but they were humans. They invaded under human circumstances, and with human persistence. To the people of Britain, they were an even greater threat than Vortigern.
In terms of military might, Britain was superior. But for the people who had land, family and property to protect, the conditions for victory were too different—different from those who had come to pillage, not possessing anything in the first place.
"The barbarians have come to take our farmland. They plunder what we have created, kill, and leave. That shall repeat forever and ever. Their ways of warfare are too different from us Britons who have to protect our lands, families, and fields."
"It would be much better if they simply came to steal. Those bastards are trying to settle down in our lands. They act like the lands we've nurtured for years belong to them! Without even going through any hardship, they intend to take our lands as their own!"
Gathering in a place where the land is bountiful is an animal's nature. To put it briefly, the principle that governed the foreign tribes' behaviour was 'survival'. They sought out new lands in order to survive. But Britain could not afford to allow immigrants in, and the foreign tribes could not afford to spend several years tilling barren land either. Both had to acquire fertile lands where crops could be harvested, or they'd be faced with death within a year. Coexistence was impossible. This battle would continue until one side perished for good.
Moreover, the foreign tribes were not the only enemies they were faced with. It was a part of the empire that guided the new invasion. They conspired to exhaust Britain's resources by utilising the foreign tribes and then eventually invading it and placing it under their rule.
"Prepare my saddle. I shall exterminate any enemies who attempt to trample on Britain."
Although the situation was markedly poor—even then—total ruin was still distant. She chose to march to battle on her own accord. To the final stage of the twelve confrontations that King Arthur galloped through; where the journey that would lead to the hill of fate began. Not a single day passed where she did not have to hold councils of war, and not a single night passed where she did not have to make camp.
Was her constant presence on the vanguard a sign of her resolve? Going to war meant forsaking a great number of her subjects. Going to war meant forsaking all of her enemies. It was common practice to deprive small villages of their resources to acquire war supplies, but many were opposed to it. To the knights, this was an unnecessary sacrifice as well as an insult to their honour. They understood that this sacrifice would prevent an even greater number of victims, but even then, none of them could bring themselves to accept it.
In what world does a king who would forsake her own hometown to defeat barbarians exist? Part of the problem was alleviated as the villagers were granted a place to migrate to, but she couldn't alleviate their feelings of loss at having their hometowns stolen away. Many of the country's soldiers were raised in these villages.
"This is to ensure tomorrow's victory. Please bear with it."
In that sense, no knight had ever killed as many people as her, and no knight had ever been hated by as many people as her. Her figure as she dashed through the battlefield was devoid of hesitation. When she rested her body on the throne, she never even narrowed her eyes in sorrow. It was simple. After all, the mage had shown her this sight on the day of selection.
A king is not human. A king cannot protect their people if they harbour human emotions.
She had sternly continued to protect that vow. She solved all kinds of problems and devoted so much of herself to ruling the country that everyone was astounded. She placed the country without a single irregularity on the scales and dealt punishment to a few that hadn't committed any sins. Even amidst the invasion, she apprehended the local lords that had been preparing to mount an insurrection and punished them.
In the soldiers' eyes, her methods must have seemed even more cold-hearted than her predecessor, Uther—no, even more cold-hearted than Vortigern himself. And then, after attaining victory in countless battles and smoothly leading several tribes—
"King Arthur does not understand the human heart," lamented one of the Knights of the Round Table as he left King Arthur's side.
Perhaps because they all harboured the same apprehension, no one condemned the knight for his choice. In this dreadful situation where everyone had fallen into decline, the more perfect King Arthur was as a king, the more they questioned their ruler. How could someone with no human emotions reign over humans?
Several esteemed knights chose to return to their own territories. Even then, the king accepted their choice as the natural course of action and granted them the governance of their lands. After all, she could not afford to dole out needless punishment.
"If they plan to barricade themselves in their own territories then so be it. We shall simply use them as a decoy in the battle with the foreign tribes."
Her judgement left the knights trembling in even more fear.
"The king only sees us as pieces on a chess board."
"Indeed. He has accomplished everything on his own, so it'd be impossible for him to see us as fellow humans."
The king who had once been the pride of the fair knights was now isolated. But that was a trifling problem; one of no concern to her kingship. Even if she was shunned, feared, and betrayed, her heart would not change. The war with the foreign tribes relentlessly continued, but the end was finally in sight. The enemy, driven into a corner, gathered on Mons Badonicus in order to mount a final offensive.
The foreign tribes' numbers and vigour overwhelmed the knights, and they all envisioned certain defeat. However, only the knights fell prey to that needless apprehension. The battle ended with King Arthur's victory. With forty percent of their forces annihilated, the foreign tribes surrendered and swore an oath to never set foot in Britain again while King Arthur still lived. An expected outcome. A year had passed since she left Camelot. She employed each and every tactic possible in order to achieve victory.
She stood atop a small hill. From a distance, she could hear the lively voices of the soldiers cheering in triumph.
"Congratulations, King Arthur. You have once again exceeded my expectations and proven yourself worthy of my admiration."
Gazing down at the joyous bright bustle, with her Holy Sword thrust into the ground she said—
"Please convey those words to everyone else too, Merlin. This victory is not mine alone."
Even though she had just won a decisive victory, she did not even show a sliver of joy. And thus, the nation destined for demise was granted a brief respite. The war that relied on the invincible hero came to an end. Britain finally returned to being the tranquil country she had seen in her dreams when she first drew the sword.
What happened afterwards... were events that tire me to speak of. She confided the island's secret to her trusted secretary and attempted to resolve it. She was advised that if arcana were to fade from Britain, then they must obtain a miracle of the same calibre, a proposal which she accepted.
And so began the Knights of the Round Table's quest for the Holy Grail that would be engraved in legend. Many knights embarked on journeys to find the Holy Grail the king spoke of only to come back empty-handed. Percival, who admired King Arthur more than anyone else, lost his life in the process. Galahad, who was exalted as the perfect knight and the young man who would shoulder the next generation of the Round Table, managed to obtain the grail. However, he was so selfless that he returned the Grail to heaven, and then ascended as well.
Camelot was enveloped in sorrow, but it was still an honourable one. It was the tenth year of King Arthur's reign on Camelot's throne, and it would also be the final one. The adultery between Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere had been uncovered.
"Shall we speak of something a bit merrier? What is chivalry to you, Artoria?"
"All of a sudden? To me, chivalry is to uphold morals, become a shield for the people, and protect one's liege. Ector taught me that a knight is someone who never shows fear on the battlefield—someone who does not take up the sword for their own sake, but rather to protect their country and beliefs.
“Am I wrong?" she inquired with a straightforward gaze.
Even at this stage, she always strove to improve herself as a person. She always listened to what others had to say, pondered on it, and questioned if she had any inadequacies. Ector was... a bit too good of a teacher.
"Even chivalry can differ depending on the person. There are those who believe favours should be repaid. Those who believe evil should be condemned above all else. Those who believe protecting their territory is their pride. To put it briefly, I believe it's a person's dignity and creed. Well, I've never been too concerned with those things so I can't really say I've experienced it for myself. I can, however, comprehend it. It's the same for him. To him, living while fostering his love for the queen was important as a human being."
She gazed at the mage with her eyes opened wider than ever before, then burst into laughter as if she couldn't hold it in anymore. It was an expression the magus hadn't seen since she was in training, and one more appropriate for her age.
"To think you'd be looking out for me. I must've seemed terribly depressed to you, haven't I? Please do not worry. I do not feel bitter towards Sir Lancelot, nor do I detest him either. On the contrary, I feel sorry. Because of my distorted way of being, I've robbed the two of them of their happiness."
Her lonely visage showed both sadness and compassion. She was mourning.
The Round Table had also shrunk. Agravain. Gareth. Gaheris. Everyone who would never return. Gawain was wounded in single combat and remained a prisoner to his grudge toward the unfaithful Lancelot. And the central figure, Lancelot, left Britain and crossed the sea to return to his territory.
"We shall decide what to write in the letter to Sir Lancelot later. More importantly, we must deal with Rome right now. Let us strike at those who would ignorantly hunt the Saxons and show them what we think. Of course, I shall pay them back in kind with my sword.”
It was hard for the mage to look at that smile. But at the same time, he also wanted to continue looking at it forever. They were feelings unbefitting of the irresponsible spawn of an incubus.
In order to hide his embarrassment, the mage said, "Arthur. No matter how hard you try, all must come to an end. Nothing lasts forever. Everything is constantly transforming into something new. Therefore, it isn't the future that you should be protecting."
"Jeez, what is it this time? You're being awfully talkative today."
"Listen well. It's what you have lived for to save that matters. It's the process that is important. The outcome will always be painted over by a new one. The righteousness of a king will likely be dealt away with by the next king to suit their own ends. Nothing will remain. Nothing shall remain.
But if even then—if your life remains untarnished 'til the end, if it is something you can take pride in, and if it is beloved by all—then it shall become a record that will remain for eternity; for as long as the cogs of mankind's history continue to turn. From within the history of our planet, a young girl's naive wish and her foolish decision may seem insignificant. However, to the people who will live in the ages to come, it will doubtlessly be seen as a glorious tale.”
"Hm... um, Merlin? I… um... I do not need any more glory and honour. I have already received too much.
"Nay. What the people have forced on you is most definitely not honour, and this is certainly not glory. In fact, it is more akin to a curse. You have not gained a single thing. What I am speaking of is how these things grant hope; they allow people to continue expressing the goodness of man. What you shall leave behind is a Noble Phantasm, or perhaps you could also call it a precious dream.”
"I'm sorry... I don't really understand."
"What I'm trying to say is this: even if that ideal remains unrealized, if you continue to uphold that vow, there will surely be people who will be saved by it."
Her gentle smile was transformed into a look of puzzlement; as if she was looking at something mysterious. It truly was such a shame. After all, even though he was a mage who spoke of nothing but grievances and lies, he had intended on being rather truthful.
Tales of the Knights
When we returned to my territory's castle and arrived at my bedchamber, the queen was beset by sleep. It was no wonder, as she had finally regained her freedom. Before this, she had been branded as an adulterer and taken to a dilapidated castle, confined to a stone cell while awaiting her sentence. Finding respite severed the strings of tension that assailed her, allowing her to finally drift into unconsciousness.
Her cheeks were stained with vestiges of regret. Her sorrow was not at her banishment from Camelot, nor was it at being swept away by me. It was at her betrayal of King Arthur. Her tears were proof that she unendingly begged for pardon, knowing just how much our relationship would pain the king. My boorish fingers could not even wipe her tears away.
The other knights did not know—they did not know just how much the queen had yearned for and supported the king. Despite being branded an adulterer and a traitor, her heart was truly that of a fair maiden. I was certain that to this moment, even as she dreamt, she was still continuing to plead for the king's forgiveness. Their relationship was abnormal. However, it was tempered by accepting things that were beyond their control. If not for my obtrusion, their secret would have remained hidden, there would have been no infighting amongst the Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot would have regained its former glory.
"No... This was for the best. This was surely for the best."
I sat myself on the bed, still clad in my full set of armour. I was fully aware of the dire straits the king was in. Until the king returned to Britain from the expedition to Rome, I had to remain clad in armour. It was the least I could do as a base demonstration of my loyalty. The night was long. Until the queen awakened, I found myself reminiscing on what she confided in me: the other half of the king's life.
The king chosen to be King of Britain was granted the power of the arcane. However, it had waned, and King Uther was meant to be the final king bestowed with that supernatural power. King Uther feared that his successor would not be blessed with Britain's protection, and was driven to commit an act of taboo: birthing a child that possessed both his blood and dragon's blood through means of man. The mage Merlin accepted his proposal, and they found the greatest carrier to bind the two types of blood, resulting in the birth of the ideal king. It was devoid of malice—a deed performed solely to ensure Britain's survival. As the ruler of the country, it was the apt decision to wish for an even greater successor.
The dragon's incarnation was birthed in accordance with their plans. However, they were beset by two problems. First, the child was a female. Second, defying his anticipations, the king's daughter—Morgan—inherited the supernatural blood. Although she was also the spawn of Britain, she resented her younger sister for receiving all of her father's hopes and affection, becoming a witch queen that sought vengeance all her life. Agravain was also an assassin sent by Morgan, and Mordred was—no, I shall refrain from speaking any further.
Morgan was undoubtedly a ruler possessed of great power. She inherited the supernatural power that was thought to have died with Uther. As the very island itself belonged to her, she retained a mastery over it that surpassed that of King Arthur. Regardless, she was no more than a small pebble in King Arthur's path. The witch queen could do naught to leave even a single scar on the king's heart.
The true predicament was the child's gender. As a result, she was brought up as a man. Only a man could reign over a great many territories and knights. Few were privy to her secret—no more than her predecessor King Uther, her foster father Ector, and the mage Merlin knew. She quite literally clad her body in iron, sealing that truth away for her entire lifetime.
I had heard of the Sword of Selection. I heard rumours about the king of Britain from my territory across the sea. A knight chosen by the mage Merlin. A hero that drew the Holy Sword no one else could. A single ray of hope that defeated the foreign tribes, shining within the despairing Britain. Needless to say, as a fellow knight, I was intrigued. No, I shall be frank. I was young then, brimming with passion and conviction.
I haughtily believed that only I, the ideal knight, could be referred to as Britain's King of Knights, and dispassionately spent my days feigning disinterest. Eventually, even in my own land, I began to be compared to the King of Knights. I grew irritated at that, so I made for Britain to ascertain that legend with my very own eyes. Perhaps it was the Lord's guidance, but as soon as I set foot in Britain, I came across her in the midst of battle.
I will never forget the shock I felt that day, as I beheld the sight of a knight that could only be seen as a young boy, gallantly swinging her sword amidst the foreign tribes. The thoughtless must have scorned the king's appearance, deeming it unfit for a knight. I too was one of them. I believed that all that was needed in battle were weight, strength, and the toughness to keep fighting day in and day out. I believed someone with the physique of a young man could not even topple a single one of those barbarians.
But the moment I witnessed the king, I realised. The essence of a knight was not a sturdy body, but the spirit. A spirit that swore what it wielded the sword to temper. A spirit that swore what it wielded the sword to protect. An unwavering conviction. I fought together with the king in that battle, and by merit of my deeds, I was invited to Camelot and granted the honour of speaking to her as a guest.
It wasn't long before I began to desire my own seat at the Round Table. I witnessed many battles with my very own eyes as one of the Knights of the Round Table. I was no different from the other knights. We worshipped the king, but none could see through her secret and the anguish that plagued her.
Naturally, some harboured suspicion toward the king's appearance. But as a wielder of a Holy Sword, the king could not be wounded, nor could she age. The Holy Sword was blessed with the protection of the Lady of the Lake, granting its wielder immortality. Thus, none pried further into her dainty frame, and the knights were proud of her girlish visage, as it proved they had a handsome king.
The king truly was unrivalled. Her physique and appearance had no bearing on that. The people, who had grown frightened of the invasion, sought a powerful king, while the knights would only serve the most capable of commanders. The king fit all of their conditions. As such, not a single soul pried into her true identity. They were content as long as she protected the nation as their king.
Their new king was impartial and always stood on the vanguard of battle, eliminating Britain's foes. Many friends and foes alike perished, but she always made the correct decisions, and she ruled the nation better than anyone else could. There was no room for doubt. In the first place, who among her subjects even considered her as a fellow human being?
"The king does not understand the human heart... you say? Sir Tristan... no, all the knights of Britain are mistaken. Why can't you realise that the king is just like all of you: a human that hails from the island of Britain."
I was a knight that arrived from a foreign land. An outsider, so to speak. The climate and culture I was raised in were different from theirs. Our beliefs clashed at a fundamental level. The British placed their island, their nation above all else, while I valued the people more than the nation. I believed that an individual's happiness had more value than the nation's happiness. Taking the hand of the woman you love when she’s in peril, even if it meant forsaking the nation, was the creed of a French knight. Although it also caused me shame, that allowed me to observe the Round Table calmly.
After Sir Tristan departed, the king's fatigue became noticeable. The queen was worried for the king, and I too felt apprehension toward the burden on her heart. I wanted to lessen the burden on her shoulders, even if just a little.
That became the mutual aspiration the queen and I shared. We began to speak, developed a mutual respect, and relied on one another. Without a doubt, I had already been taken by her at that point. The strength of heart that allowed her to support the king from the shadows was few and far between. She confided the king's secret to me because the burden grew too heavy for her to bear. I learned of the king's true identity, I learned of the queen's loneliness, and I learned of my own naïveté. At that very moment, I found myself dominated by rage. It was... rage toward all that was chaste. I felt an uncontrollable resentment toward the island of Britain itself.
My adultery with the queen was exposed by that man.
"As I expected. You never were a worthy queen to King Arthur, Guinevere."
"Damn you... Agravain...!"
He had risen to the position of secretary, so he knew the king's true identity, and he used that knowledge to threaten the queen. The affront to the queen brought forth my final resolve. I cut through many knights, slew fellow Knights of the Round Table that I once called my friends, and fled to my own territory. I became an adultering traitor—a beast unworthy of even calling himself a knight. From the depths of my soul, a man cried out that this was for the best. I had the woman I loved.
King Arthur lived in idealism, just as I once did. But I had grown older. Humans grow older. We were not evergreen like the king. Humans do not have much time to spare living by their ideals. I was no longer the knight the king had such high hopes for. My adultery with the queen unexpectedly served to prove that. I even felt relieved that the king would know of my downfall and the limits of man, and that I would be branded a traitor and punished.
But the king said she forgave us. That virtuous king said that she forgave us, both me and the queen.
"My friend. My pride. My ideal knight. If you have chosen to commit such deeds, then they must doubtlessly be just. I am certain of it."
When I read the words inscribed on that letter, I felt a premonition of my end: one where my soul decayed into madness.
"What the... hell is this?"
Did the king not love Guinevere? No, I am certain she did. She trusted Guinevere both as her wife and as her dearest friend. Was she granting pardon to those who trampled on that fellowship and trust, and then abandoned her? Impossible. Absolutely impossible. Those words were simply for appearances. She only chose to forgive me, a knight, bearing her position as king in mind. If I were to defect, then Camelot would surely be ruined. Indeed, that must be it. She had steeled her heart and chosen to forgive a traitor like me, even though she resented me—
"If only. Had she been that kind of person, I would have never retreated."
Indeed. I retreated because I was afraid. She truly forgave us and was wishing for our happiness. Almost as if she was assured that there could be no better conclusion. She was truly a king whose only purpose was to protect her nation. After all, she hid her true identity and suppressed her own self simply so she could protect her people.
If I had been in the same position, would I be able to pardon the traitor? No, the very premise of that question was flawed. After all, the king differed from us on a fundamental level. She was not a human, nor was she raised as one. Yet even then, she attempted to live justly as a human. A being that did not know human happiness but loved it.
Naught but a single term could describe her: a monster. An even greater monster than Vortigern. There was no way anyone else could understand her. Was her way of life not the hell that we humans conveniently imagined?
Just what was I so angered by? To this very moment, I respect the king. I revere her. However, I cannot, I must not recognize that thing as human. To accept her way of being as wonderful would make me no different than the knights who left the castle.
"Oh, Guinevere. Is this what has been plaguing you so?"
This fear birthed in my heart shall eventually become hate, and eventually loathing. It shall drive me to eternally curse the king who forever lives in idealism. An abominable future, but a suitable retribution for a man such as myself. The night is long. The sun has not yet risen past the horizon. I gaze at the island that has now become a distant foreign land—at the once brilliant castle of chalk.
04. Setting Sail
It was a majestic daybreak. From the harbour, the rising sun was periodically concealed by the floating clouds. It definitely couldn't be called 'good' weather. Nevertheless, the sun's glint as it peeked through the horizon brought golden ears of rice to mind, and her form as she stood on the wharf appeared even more composed than usual. The entire harbour was in a frenzy preparing for the large fleet of ships' departure. She and the mage stood on a wharf detached from the hustle and bustle and began their final conversation.
"It's finally time for the expedition to Rome, huh? Are you truly set on this course of action, King Arthur?"
"I am. We shall confront them before they set sail. First, we shall mount an offensive, and then we can start negotiations after."
The confidence in her calm assertion that she'd preemptively destroy her enemy brought a smile to the mage's face. It wasn't a smile of scorn, however, but one of joy.
"Jeez, you hate losing as much as ever, but you're right. Rome is looking down on the current Britain. They're gloating over our impoverishment from the battle with the Saxons. I’m sure it’ll feel great to sock them on the face and knock them on their rears."
"Indeed. I have some pent-up grievances of my own too, so I intend on mercilessly crushing them. Then while they're scrambling in confusion, we will offer a treaty and swear them to peace."
The mage smiled in agreement, because he had already foreseen that her—no, King Arthur's ploy would certainly succeed. But—
"But, I'm slightly concerned about your absence. Who shall remain while you are away?"
"My broth—Sir Kay and Mordred, as well as Sir Gawain, who is currently recuperating. As for the matter with Sir Lancelot, I shall tell everyone about that after this expedition."
"I see... So... it really did turn out this way..."
The mage was about to say something, but he hesitated and eventually elected to avoid telling her the truth. His eyes could not peer into the future, but they could perceive the world. Those eyes could read precisely what was to come after this. As a result of her accumulated acts of cruelty, the king's absence due to the expedition was likely to lead to a war occurring. The king would certainly achieve victory in the battle with Rome. However, when she returned to Britain, she would be surrounded by her own nation's troops.
Morgan's offspring and Arthur's clone, the unwanted child: Mordred. Mordred, whose true face had been obscured by a helmet, would begin to move once King Arthur departed. His... no, her treachery was an unavoidable destiny. Still, it was something that had yet to occur. No matter when, if Mordred had ever attempted to mount a rebellion, King Arthur would surely have put it down skillfully. But this time—only this time was promised victory not in sight. After her great exploits during the Rome expedition, she could very well lose her life in the most dreadful battle—one where her fellow countrymen would slaughter each other.
The mage did not reveal that truth to her. Although he was an inhuman mage, he had guided the king in his own non-human way. Britain was at its limit. Her duty as the king who would save Britain was over. And so, he thought that she should finally rest. They didn't exchange many words, but still, the conversation pressed on. And after several questions—
"Britain will eventually fall into ruin. Even if we hold out for another century, it will not affect this island's history significantly. No, more precisely, it has already fallen into ruin. This is the end for Britain. If I said that, what would you do?"
He referred to himself in the first person in the question, something he never used outside of dreams, and delivered the ruthless truth. Just how far had he foreseen?
But her reply was as if she were speaking to a decade-long friend—
"I'll get mad if you keep making your usual bad jokes. Britain will not fall into ruin. I am doing everything I can to prevent that."
With a gentle smile, she put her duty into words. She had decided to fight. Even if she would end up losing everything and being scorned by everyone.
Suddenly, the mage recalled the day of selection. The twilight where only they had remained. The resolve of the girl who stood before the sword. There was no need to ask her again after all this time. She had sworn that she would fight. Etched into that stone was the wish of the young girl that she had abandoned then; because in exchange for her own destiny, she wished to protect everyone.
"You're right. I've gotten rather forgetful recently. Looks like I don't have the right to make fun of humans either. Yeah. It happened just a short while ago, but to me, it feels like it's been an eternity. I haven't really told you much about Uther. After all, he was a problematic man of the same calibre as the Vile King. Well, I delightedly went along with his plan, so you could also say the same for me. But at the time it seemed like a good choice, and it was in fact the best move we could've made. We created the ideal king, and if you ask me, I think we did a good job."
"But... the rest didn't go as planned. We desired the ideal king. You desired the people's happiness. From the beginning, we were looking at completely different things. I should've realised that sooner."
She gazed at the mage in bewilderment. Of course. Even if she was presented with such an obvious truth after all this time, she could not understand what the mage was trying to convey. Those words of his may have just been his attempt at repentance toward her, and that pained him.
"It's fine. You should stay as you are."
The bell that signalled departure rang. The sun ascended past the horizon, and the ship that would never return was about to set sail. She went to board the boat, but the mage stayed in place.
"I'm sorry for springing this on you, but this is as far as I go. You see, I made a bit of a careless blunder. I'm being hunted by an evil fairy, so I must go into hiding for a while."
His words left her shrugging her shoulders in exasperation.
"Even after I told you time and time again to refrain from getting into too much trouble with the ladies. That's the one thing you can never fix no matter how many years have passed."
"It's my reason for living after all. What is life without flowers?"
She gave a warm smile to the mage who spoke proudly. Indeed. The mage had seen her smile countless times. However, she wasn't smiling for her own sake. She was gleefully smiling because she saw her people's happiness.
"Thank you, Merlin. I am grateful to you. You have truly been a great mentor to me."
Her words of farewell were simple. She did not know of her own fate, and perhaps that was why she intended on only giving a brief farewell. The mage grew awkwardly bashful at her straightforward gratitude. He was used to these compliments, as he had heard those words many times before. Be that as it may, he found himself choking on his words, overcome by emotions he had never even dreamt of. Failing to come up with one of his usual witty replies, he was unable to say any words of farewell.
"Unlike you, I do not have any experience dealing with the opposite sex, so I am not quite sure what this emotion is; but I am truly grateful that you have been here for me—that you have stayed by my side for all these years. Perhaps I may even have been in love with you."
She didn't blush at all, and she didn't have a maiden's bashfulness either. She simply put her misguided thoughts into words, conveying them with all her heart. To her, that was the greatest expression of affection she could think of. Naturally, it was not love. As she had never experienced life as a human, it was simply a misguided expression of the greatest gratitude she knew.
Their final conversation came to an end. The king boarded the ship and set sail for the golden sea. While seeing her off, the mage began to monologue.
“I was... a being that only loved beautiful conclusions. I may have a human appearance, but my true self is cold-blooded like an insect. I am a non-human incapable of even feeling proper emotion. And yet, I have fallen in love with a single, beautiful heart.”
The mage did not understand human love, and Artoria was yet to know of it. Still, they spoke of love to one another. How ironic.
"No, I guess that too was an expected outcome. After all, two fellow non-humans tried to pass themselves off as human. There was no way it would ever lead to understanding."
05. The Day of Camlann
After signing the treaty with Rome, King Arthur was aboard the ship, on her way back to Britain. They had lost a few hundred soldiers and two ships in the battle with Rome, but the benefits they reaped far outweighed the cost. The soldiers who were sailing the boat from the deck were clearly all in high spirits. The long-enduring battle with the foreign tribes had finally come to an end. They could do naught but pray for God to bless their poor harvest, but at least the conflict between mankind was finally over. They had been pushed to the brink of exhaustion by their daily lives, but the soldiers were now filled with hope.
She stood on the ship's deck, gazing at the soldiers as they hoisted the sails and spoke to each other. They were telling themselves it would all work out somehow, which was somewhat of a catchphrase between them. Unlike the soldiers though, she had a faint hint of distress on her face.
"Somehow? Well... at the very least, as long as I still live."
The treaty with Rome was signed only because King Arthur had been there. The Romans did not fear Britain; they only feared King Arthur. It was a brief moment of peace. If the island of Britain itself did not gain any value, it would all be meaningless. She swallowed down her unease, convincing herself it was fine as long as it granted her impoverished people respite. Britain was in sight. She raised her head, deciding to prioritise informing everyone of her triumph, but then she noticed something strange.
Something was on the island's coastline—something that should not have been there. A fire was raging at the harbour. The soldiers, who had gone pale, went to deliver their report.
"Sir Mordred has… I have come to deliver information regarding his rebellion! Seven clans and eight feudal lords have sided with the traitors, and Camelot has fallen...!"
That was the recompense she was granted for her meritorious deeds. Mordred had gathered the rebels while King Arthur was away, seized Camelot, and positioned her troops on the coastline in order to destroy King Arthur's army while they were on the journey back. In the ages to follow, it would come to be known as King Arthur's final battle. The twilit battlefield where chivalry was scattered like flowers. The monument of corpses where a great many lost their radiance: the Battle of Camlann.
Mordred's army laid in wait for King Arthur's troops, who had been worn out from the expedition to Rome. It was only thanks to the aid of Gawain and Kay that their ship was able to come ashore. Hearing of Mordred's rebellion, the wounded Gawain rushed toward the battlefield. King Arthur managed to break through the besiegement with Gawain's guidance, and then King Arthur's forces, as well as Kay's rearguard unit appeared out of nowhere, rescuing them from the hornet's nest. Until the end, Sir Kay never got a chance to see the king for himself.
Having made landfall, King Arthur was afforded a momentary reprieve. Many feudal lords sided with Mordred, so King Arthur was at a disadvantage in terms of military strength. At the end of the first battle after landfall, Gawain lost his life in single combat with Mordred.
"Just like King Arthur, I will always take the lead on the battlefield."
So declared the fearless Mordred. However, she was wounded in battle with Gawain and forced to command her troops from the rearguard following the second day. As a result, it became a war of attrition. For seven days, the battle where fellow countrymen slaughtered each other raged on.
Perhaps Mordred's side had their own side of the story too: they underhandedly aimed to take the king's head before his return only to avoid needless bloodshed. But regardless of their intent, battle persisted. The blazes of war spread throughout the island, inflicting a fatal wound on the country that had only just barely managed to survive.
As she circled the blazing country, repeating the process of retreating and giving chase, she realised the reason for the rebellion. The soldiers that joined Mordred's rebellion were not united by their hatred for King Arthur. The unending wars. The barren land. The children that died of starvation. They had always been enduring it. They had always protested that they could not take any more.
Please put up with it. Please bear with it. That was what she told the knights. Indeed, she was the ideal king. She urged everyone to live a proper human life—to live a life of integrity. She told them that a prosperous country would definitely arise in the end. But... for how long? How long would they have to persevere to be rewarded?
"Everyone else... had long since been at their limits. I was... the only one that could still take it."
It was because she was the ideal king that she could not see her people's weaknesses. Objectively speaking, anyone could tell—that at this point, her heart had already been broken.
The dawn of the seventh day. The battle had arrived at the hill of Camlann. The clash of the two armies continued until twilight. Both sides had been driven to the point of extinction. On the mountain of corpses, the scarce few that remained could be counted. Standing on the bloodstained hill, she recalled a certain knight's words.
"The king does not understand the human heart."
Admitting he was right, she grasped her spear and tried to hold her broken heart together. Her Holy Sword had long since lost its radiance. The moment her heart broke, the star on the surface went cold.
"Finally. I spent a long, long time wandering about the battlefield to finally reach you, King Arthur."
Only two knights remained on the battlefield. The knight that appeared before her was clad in an irregular armour and helmet. Her figure as she dragged her blood-shrouded sword, Clarent, was like seeing a spectre in the flesh. The spectre that had usurped a country, killed soldiers, and was starved for something immaterial began to speak.
"Behold. This is the end of your country. It's all over. Whether you emerge victorious, or I emerge victorious, everything has already gone to ruin."
Before the king, the Knight of Treachery began to repeatedly ask 'why'.
Why did you not bequeath the crown to me? Why did you not acknowledge me as your own son? Why did I have to be born into the world in this form?
The king had no words to respond with, nor did she feel any obligation to respond. The last remaining knights of Britain crossed blades. The Holy Lance pierced through and incinerated the traitor's entrails, eviscerating her. The traitor's demonic sword shattered the king's helmet, cracking her skull and robbing her of one of her eyes. The traitor's body slid off the spear, signalling the end of her life.
King Arthur—Artoria dropped to her knees, used her now meaningless Holy Sword as a cane, and took a sweeping glance at the hill of corpses. Plastered on her face was a plain, unadorned look... a look that had likely never been seen before. Trying desperately to seal her lips shut, to hold back her tears, her breathing ragged with sorrow, she gazed down at Britain's end and wailed.
"I caused so many battles and stole so many lives. That's why... I was prepared to meet a more tragic end than anyone else—I was prepared to die scorned by everyone. But—"
She began to lament in a voice filled with inexpressible emotion. Wasn't I supposed to be the only one that would fall into ruin? Wasn't the foolish king supposed to be the only one that would meet a foolish end?
"This isn't... this isn't how it was supposed to be. This isn't the end I wished for...! I knew that Britain would come to an end. But I believed it would be a more gentle end—an end like that of peaceful slumber!"
Her fervent emotions that she had kept hidden all this time were beyond even the mage's imagination. It was a sorrow and rage that ripped the hearts of all who heard it to shreds; a lament that cursed the world.
"That's a bad move. You must not utter those words!" the mage reached out to warn her, but he was much too far away.
The hero who was chosen by the Holy Sword, entrusted with the Holy Lance, and carried the burden of Britain's future proclaimed—
"This is wrong. This is absolutely wrong. Even if I have accepted my own death, I cannot accept this sight."
It was not the planet, but mankind that granted the ruined king's wish as she glared at the heavens. The planet may have accepted the end of civilization, but those that had attained its Seat of Primacy, mankind, continued to reject it. A defence mechanism for the human world created by mankind's collective unconscious. It stored countless records and amassed countless powers in order to ensure the continuation of human history; it was a vault of souls that would continue to exist until the end of the Human Order. In short, it was a loan shark that had no limit. If it deemed someone 'useful for the continuation of mankind', it would grant them endless opportunities to use their magical energy as a tool for maintaining human history.
In the depths of despair, she most certainly heard that voice.
"You shall be given a chance. In exchange for your life after death, your wish will be granted.
She did not even understand what it meant. But still, she beseeched it.
"If you can overturn this ruin, you may take anything you want."
—Ah. The devious miracle scooped her wishes up. That was a voice from the world. A false messenger that claimed to be a miracle.
Spacetime distorted. A gravity source like a bottomless swamp took hold of her. She detested Britain's ruin so much that she forsook her own salvation. And thus began the king's quest for the Holy Grail. An eternal hell devoid of salvation.
06. In the Flower Garden
The man was roused from his long reminiscence by the cry of the familiar he had summoned himself—Cath Palug.
"Ah, right. I was imprisoned..."
He surveyed his vicinity, still seated. Walls of grey surrounded him on all sides. They were sturdy but devoid of any elegance. Put simply, they lacked beauty. It seemed like whoever fashioned this cage was unsuited to meticulous labour.
"Good grief. This is why men fall out of love. I truly do believe perseverance is an absolutely essential virtue for both men and women."
He took hold of the staff resting on his shoulder and struck the ground with it. A light knock echoed. In an instant, with the vividness of an ebbing tide, the walls' structure transformed. The once desolate land was reshaped into a sea of flowers in full bloom. The once disordered walls of stone had become walls of black iron devoid of any gaps. They were altered to become even sturdier, becoming a spire that would not grant liberation even if the world were to end. There were no doors or openings of any sort. The spire was fully exiled from the outside world.
"I suppose this is enough. This is supposed to be my punishment, so I shall leave it at that."
He had always been a creature detached from society, but with this, he had truly been ostracised. Just like a forgotten dream, he would no longer be called forth by anyone, nor would he be granted death. Even if the people considered him a hero, he could not be beseeched as a Heroic Spirit. After all, he was not yet dead, and he had also been divorced from an end where he would be visited by death. It was the absolute condition of summoning a Heroic Spirit; whether in the past or in the future, only those who had been met with death could become the cornerstone of the people.
As such, he could not go anywhere. The mage whimsically chose to live on his lonesome and ascertain his sins with his very own eyes. He was fine with that. If the hybrid of dragon and man was wicked, then the spawn of an incubus and human must be too. It was because he was a half-hearted human that he had become so bizarre.
‘Only the sinless' they say, but he ended up wanting to at least grumble a single complaint. If he had been born as a pure incubus, he would not have ended up burdened with these feelings.
"But you are different. You had better think things through, and choose with your own self-interests in mind."
It wasn't all bad though. It was because he had a human standpoint and a human body that he was able to attain his own sense of values. Incubi were beings that leeched off intelligent beings' mental activity, so they would never attain values of their own. Their aesthetic senses and feelings were altered depending on the brain they leeched off of. As such, his way of living was intriguing in its own way. Half decay and half aspiration. He was most likely the only incubus on this planet that possessed the notion of 'life's work'.
Seated on a slab of stone, he peered out of the window. The hill of ruin. He knew exactly what sort of situation she had fallen into. What the king called forth with her pleas was a mechanism called the Counter Force. The Counter Force differed from the Throne of Heroes. It was a defence mechanism born from mankind's collective unconscious that used humans as slaves to ensure mankind's survival. Some viewed it as the voice of the Lord, while others viewed it as the voice of the world. Either way, the result remained unchanged. Humans who complied with the Counter Force would become Guardians after death and be set to work for all eternity.
"The difference between Guardians and Heroic Spirits? They both refer to souls that have ascended to the Throne. However, Heroic Spirits are summoned in response to the people's hope, while Guardians are summoned in response to the people's despair."
Those who had become Heroic Spirits solely because of their own accomplishments and sins would not be taken captive by the Counter Force. On the other hand, the powerless—those who cursed their own helplessness and sought power greater than their own while they lived would. The Counter Force was a contract of equivalent exchange. It would grant a 'miracle' to the person that cursed their own helplessness and temporarily transform them into a hero. As compensation, it would take the transient Heroic Spirit's soul after their death. In other words, their soul would never be granted salvation, not even after death.
The king was already a hero. The Counter Force would not be able to reach her. That is... as long as she accepted Britain's ruin and laid her sword down. But she wished for the salvation of Britain—no, for her people's salvation. Thus, she would remain trapped in Camlann at the brink of death, summoned to each and every era countless times in search of the Holy Grail.
It may sound strange, but she had ended up becoming a living Heroic Spirit. She did not seek the Holy Grail after becoming a Heroic Spirit. In order to obtain the Holy Grail, she called out to the Counter Force even though she didn't have to, becoming a Heroic Spirit. Once she obtained it, the contract would be complete. She would then continue to fight as a Guardian after her death.
But he acknowledged that it was out of his hands. After all, it was her life. Becoming a Guardian might even suit her. But... there was only a single thing he could not consent to.
Her wish was as clear as day. She would doubtlessly wish to redo the day of selection, denying her own existence. The days the girl called Artoria spent fighting would have never existed. The girl lamenting right now would have never existed. That contract would erase all of her battles—all of the pain she had ever gone through. Even as a non-human, the mage was certain that her wish was a mistake.
I peer out of the window while seated on the stone. Without even reaching out, I look down at the hill of ruin. Will King Arthur tread the path of a Guardian? Will she remain a slave even after her death? Will she continue to repeatedly offer herself up as the sole sacrifice, fighting to kill her own self? Will that be the only end granted to her? Before I know it, I find myself completely entranced, gazing without even moving an inch.
I know just how capable she is. No matter what happens, she will definitely acquire the Grail. Once she acquires the Grail, her wish will be granted. Who could've known that awaiting a future devoid of salvation would be this painful? Time does not pass in the garden, but it feels as if time has come to a halt. Each and every second feels like an unbearable eternity. Each and every second feels like an instant I want to turn my gaze away from.
And then— after a long, long time, she finally lays her Holy Sword down. Without conceding her life after death, and without scorning her own life. With a gentle smile, she accepts Britain's foolish end.
"Time to get up!"
I rise to my feet, brimming with joy. Cath Palug, standing by my feet, dashes around the vicinity in a panic.
"How beautiful! What a miracle! To think a conclusion like this still existed in this twisted world!"
I don't know what happened, but everything had come to a splendid end. At the end of a long quest for the Holy Grail, she finally accepted her own fate. She did not grow weary of battle and forsook her quest. The Counter Force's binding could not be erased by such a trivial measure. Without a doubt, she obtained the Holy Grail and chose to reject it by her own will.
Looking back on it, it was a long journey. She made many mistakes and was unable to reach the place she desired. Her battle will one day be forgotten. This country too shall become a relic of the past. But even then, her battle was not meaningless. No matter what anyone may say, the king certainly chose the greatest path. Even if ruin awaits, this end is certainly not a mistake. This life is something worth taking pride in.
If in her final moments—she was able to accept that—then I no longer need to venture outside. What you aimed to accomplish. What you left behind. What you... bestowed upon me. All of those are my recompense. This is the end of the mage's era, more than enough to breathe colour into this measly little garden. Well, to be honest, I'm rather sad that I ended up being the only non-human.
"But I'm surprised that obstinate little girl admitted defeat. She must have had a rather strange encounter. I can only see the present, so I can't tell what era it happened in. If it's in the future, then I can at least enjoy watching it unfold."
I stretch my arms out, then once again sit on the stone. In the vestiges of the end, I remember her words of parting.
"Thank you, Merlin. I am grateful to you. You have truly been a great mentor to me."
At that time, I had a troubled smile on my face. It wasn't because of joy. It was just so heart-wrenching that I couldn't help but smile. As a sage, I had gotten used to hearing those words of gratitude, but they bore into my heart like an arrow.
"I truly was at a loss then… I never thought that the day would come when hearing those inconsequential words would hurt me so much."
That too is the consequence of my own actions, I think to myself as I shrug my shoulders. I had already seen what I needed to see. No. I got to see something beautiful—more beautiful than I deserved. With this, I shall cease crossing into the human world like a vagrant.
All that was granted to the man was a measly piece of land. The prison furthest isolated from the world. But the flowers bloomed wilder here than anywhere in the outside world; an unchanging garden of memories.
The garden of paradise—The Garden of Avalon.
The man who had already forgotten death would now await the planet's end here.
"Now, off you go, Cath Palug. I shall remain here. Be free, and seek out that which is truly beautiful."
Without much sentiment, the mage bade farewell to his final companion. He was not human, so he did not consider solitude lonely. If he found himself with nothing to do, he would simply speak of beautiful pictures. Fortunately, outside the spire, there were fairies aplenty and it would be easy to find listeners. The mage leaned out of the only window and continued his contemplation of the world, something he would never tire of.
And thus was the tale of the king recited at the far ends of paradise.