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re:Birth

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            …This is a story about something that happened ten years ago.
            Even now, I remember thinking vaguely that she was beautiful.
            Not to say that I never thought other girls or women were beautiful, but it was on a completely different level.
            Her portrait was stored in the main estate that I rarely ever went into except for formal occasions.
            I had never paid much attention to it until the night that Rosary dared me and several of the other children to sneak into the estates, stay there for an hour, and then come back without being caught.

            …At the time it was nothing more than a test of our abilities.
            The adults frowned upon our behavior but tolerated it because such rivalries were the way of things; still, it would have been troublesome to be caught.
            A lot of things were riding on that childish contest for all of us.
            …But that is a long story and this is a simple memory.

            —She was beautiful.
            It was the portrait of a young woman, preserved through the ages with our family’s magical arts, a treasure that connected our family to her blood.
            The portrait was hung opposite a window, and so as I ran down the hall, I was struck by the sight of the moonlight illuminating the paint.
            I thought that she was beautiful.
            Even as important as “winning” was to the eleven-year-old me, I still stopped for a moment, held captive by that beauty.
            It was the beauty of a faraway idol or a great sorcerer, but there was still something human about it.

            At that time.
            Maybe that was the moment that “fate” reached out and connected my life to her—

            The morning starts slowly as I wake up.
            …I say it starts slowly, but there’s a tense air of excitement about the house.
            It may simply be me, but I can feel my Magic Crest tingling vaguely, along with the unformed version of the Command Spell.
            Carefully.
            I take the time to finalize the last touches to the summoning circle, and to pass the time, I rearrange the contents of the room.
            I don’t know how much of a shockwave the summoning will produce, but it would be a bother cleaning everything up if everything isn’t secured properly beforehand.
            …Hmm.
            There isn’t very much to do now except eat something and watch the clock.
            My peak of magical energy will occur just before one o’clock in the afternoon, and there’s still about half an hour left until then.

            …Absently, I return to the kitchen and look through the refrigerator and pantry.
            If I get too wrapped up, I might miss the appointed time, so I can’t actually cook anything fancy or overly rich.
            …Unfortunately. There’s no calming agent like standing in front of the stovetop with the scent of food all throughout the room.
            Sigh.

            After complaining to myself mentally, I pull out the preparations for a simple watercress sandwich.
            I’m not very hungry due to the amount of energy stored in my body, but it would be best to fortify myself so that I don’t pass out due to lack of prana in front of my Servant…
            Thinking things like that, I toast the bread and arrange the ingredients.
            …Hmm.
            Actually, looking at the date of expiration stamped on the package of blackberries, it seems that I should eat those soon.
            I take the carton out of the refrigerator and begin to wash the blackberries.
            …I wonder what I should do about meals for the next two weeks…

            …………
            ………Hold on.
            …That’s definitely the smell of something burning, but—

            “Ah…”
            The bread…

            …Sigh.
            The room is aired out.
            Thankfully the bread itself wasn’t burned too badly, only scorched a bit.
            …Spacing out in the kitchen is dangerous…

            …
            ……
            ………
            …………
            …I shut off my human functionality.
            The summoning itself will be mostly taken care of by the Holy Grail, but I must suppress everything else and call with all my heart.
            The magic circle is completed flawlessly and the catalyst is connected.
            Slowly.
            The blood within my veins turns into thick chunks of ice, flowing sluggishly and tearing my capillaries apart from the inside.
            I breathe in.
            The air scrapes my throat like sandpaper.
            And with words, with prana, I expel the breath again—

            “Ye first, O silver, O iron.
            O stone of the foundation, O archduke of the contract.
            Hear me in the name of our great teacher, the Archmagus Schweinorg.
            Let the descending winds be as a wall.
            Let the gates in all directions be shut, rising above the crown, and let the three-forked roads to the Kingdom revolve.
            Shut. Shut. Shut. Shut. Shut.
            Five perfections for each repetition.
            And now, let the filled sigils be annihilated in my stead!”

            …Ahh.
            The sudden inundation of mana is so strong that it makes my stomach contract.
            I feel as though I’ll be sick if this keeps on.
            …No matter.
            My Magic Crest begins to burn as though a hot iron is being pressed directly against my skin.
            The extra power buoys me up even as the pain threatens to overwhelm my sanity.

            It can’t be helped.
            It can’t be helped, as in the end Roswell Branthèse is still human, despite all the magical training he has gone through.
            My body will reject being used as a circuit for all it is worth for as long as I practice magic.
            —But.
            The surging power inside me reaches out and is connected to the circle.

            The feeling of something far, far in the distance perking up its ears at my call.

            …Now.

            “Set!
            Let thy body rest under my dominion, let my fate rest in thy blade.
            If thou submittest to the call of the Holy Grail, and if thou wilt obey this mind, this reason, then thou shalt respond.
            I make my oath here.
            I am that person who is to become the virtue of all heaven.
            I am that person who is covered with the evil of all hell.
            Thou seven heavens, clad in a trinity of words,
            Come past thy restraining rings, and be thou the hands that protect the balance—!!”

            In that instant.
            A connection splits the dimensions, running between me and the still-unseen Servant on the other side of the void like a lightning strike.
            The rush of power is so immense and so bright that I am momentarily blinded.
            Rather than a burst of light so bright as to overwhelm the retinas, this is my “eyes” shutting down in the presence of the unseen element for the sake of my “human functionality” being preserved.
            It is not something meant for a lowly being to observe.

            There is a rumble like thunder.
            …And in the midst of everything.

            —The soft, dainty sound of a footstep like a tiny bell being rung.

            The back of my left hand sears as though an icicle is being driven into it.
            This is, the formation of the Command Spell.

            The feeling of everything dissipating.
            Slowly, the energy drains out of my body and I am left standing weakly.

            I open my eyes.

            “—”

            Standing at the center of the summoning circle,
            is a beautiful girl.

            Softly.
            Her golden hair sways delicately, catching the light filtering in through the window.
            Her wide white skirts flutter as though they are no heavier than gauze, and patterns of light dance on the floor, filtering through their lace.
            She steps forward again.
            Her small white shoe rings against the floorboards with that same sound of a bell.
            Her pale skin glimmers as though translucent porcelain.
            Eyes the color of sapphire pierce through me.

            …Ah.
            The back of my hand throbs as though a blade has been pushed into my chest, through my very heart.
            I cannot speak.

            She takes another step forward, then stops, folding her hands at her waist.
            “—I ask of you.
            “Are you my Master?”

            Her clear voice rings out, echoing through the room.

            Somehow.
            I find my voice.

            “—Yes.
            “My name is Roswell Branthèse, and I am the one who summoned you.”

            I raise my right hand.
            A swirling red pattern, the Command Spell, is inscribed upon my flesh.

            She smiles.

            “I, the Servant Saber, have come forth in response to thy summons.
            “From this time forth, mine sword shall be with thee, and thy fate shall be with me.
            “Now, our contract is complete.”

            “—”
            …That smile.
            It feels like I’m being purified down to the bottom of my soul.

            She—Saber lightly grasps her skirts and curtsies.
            “It’s nice to meet you, Master.
            “I hope we’ll be able to work together well in the battle for the Holy Grail.
            “Also—this is probably sudden, but would you prefer me to call you Master or Roswell?”

            I try to smile back.
            I don’t know if my face is cooperating, but Saber is behaving in a very mannerly fashion, and I want to at least reply in kind.

            “Roswell is fine.”

            The girl in white straightens up.
            “It seems that you called for me specifically, but—my name is Yggdra Yuril Artwaltz, and I shall be your Saber in this Holy Grail War.
            “No matter the difficulty, I swear upon my blade that I shall secure our victory.”

            …
            ……
            …I don’t fully understand what it is, but there’s a sensation like conflicted feelings in my chest, and it’s difficult to look at her directly.

            “—There’s probably a lot that the two of us need to talk about now.
            “But I would like to ask you something first.”

            “—Yes?”
            She answers brightly.

            …This is embarrassing.
            Still.
            “—I know how important it is to conceal your identity from our opponents on the field. And I know that even with the conditions, it’s a risk… but referring to you as ‘Saber’ feels too impersonal to me. It seems—well, kind of impolite.”
            …At the very least, it feels like my parents and grandparents would scold me for calling a lovely young girl like this a sword.
            “So, when we’re in private… would it be all right if I call you by your given name instead?”

            —She smiles at me.
            It’s a different sort of smile than the one she wore before, an expression that’s soft and almost motherly.
            “—Yes. If you’re that kind of person, then I think we’ll be able to work together just fine.
            “By all means, call me Yggdra when we’re alone together.”

            …Maybe it’s just the way she phrased it.
            But suddenly it’s a little difficult to breathe.

            …I show Yggdra around the house.
            Naturally, I have a room prepared for her which is close to mine.
            If the boundary field is somehow breached, then it’s best that we be as near to each other as possible to defend each other capably.
            Honestly, in the context of a magus and a familiar, it would be most practical for us to share a room, but…
            A Servant is a special case.
            Servants are “heroes” who have been removed from the cycle of life and placed in the Throne of Heroes in order to be used as guardian spirits of humanity.
            Meaning that even though they have superhuman abilities and strength, they are still human at their core.
            In that context, no matter her appearance and identity, Yggdra is still a young lady.
            It would be discourteous of me to ask a girl I’ve just met to share a room with me.
            Especially when I don’t mean it sexually and we have to work together for the rest of the Grail War.

            I’m a little worried that Yggdra might ask about my motives for giving her this nearby room instead of part of mine, but she doesn’t.
            I’m glad.
            It saves me from talking myself into a hole that I won’t be able to get out of.

            Once I’ve shown her where everything is, we return to the kitchen.
            The morning’s disgrace has been completely washed away and everything is clean.
            “—Yggdra, I know that Heroic Spirits can’t get as much nutritional value out of human food as ordinary humans can.
            “But all the same, I’d be more than happy to cook for you if you’d like to have anything here. Is there anything that you would like to eat, or can’t eat?”

            The golden-haired girl sits down at the table.
            Aside from her clothes, which make her look even more temporally displaced than she must actually be, she appears remarkably at home with her surroundings.
            “I like fruit and sweet things, and I can’t eat mushrooms.
            “…But really, anything is fine. You don’t need to cook for two, so I’ll gladly accept anything that you’re willing to make.”
            She’s still smiling.
            …I hope that even a little bit, she’s able to accept me as a Master who will treat her with kindness.

            I suppose that for tonight, I should start off simple.
            I have enough fruit in the refrigerator that I can make a fruit salad, and I also begin to prepare a spiced chicken for teriyaki.
            The saltier flavor of the chicken will keep the taste of the meal from becoming too similar and boring.

            …While I cook, we discuss our plans.

            “To my knowledge, there are still Master seats open, so the Grail War has not technically begun yet.
            “Until it has, we shouldn’t really do anything other than try to gather information.”

            At the table, Yggdra shifts in her seat and nods, resting her chin on her steepled fingers.
            “—That does seem wise. When should we start?”
            “I was hoping that we would be able to do so tonight. I can show you around the town that way too—at least, if you aren’t worn out or anything because of the summoning.”
            She smiles and shakes her head.
            “If anyone should be worn out because of the summoning, it’s you. I’d be happy to go out as long as you’re sure you have the energy.”
            I try to smile in return, although it feels a little lopsided to me.
            “I’ll be fine. It’s true that the summoning depleted a lot of my prana, but as long as I get enough sleep tonight, it shouldn’t hurt my functionality to walk around tomorrow.”

            “—All right, then. Please escort me, Roswell.”
            There’s something like a mild shock at the center of my chest.
            It may just be her words, but—there’s something about this woman that affects me profoundly.

            “When the battle actually begins…”
            “—Yes, it would be prudent to discuss such things now. Roswell, I can tell that you have a good prana capacity just by the fact that you’re all right now, but… what are your strengths in battle?”
            “—I have some training in the use of High Speed Aria, and my personal element is Shadow. It’s an alignment that’s close to Imaginary Numbers, but not quite at that level, I’m afraid. I belong to the Valois lineage, and my house has always specialized in shadow magic and healing.
            “I don’t expect to be able to defend myself against another Servant, and I only have some self-defense training, though. It’s a bit embarrassing to say so, but I will be depending upon you as my knight.”
            “That’s fine with me. You may already know, but I can’t use magic myself—even when it’s not activated to produce its special technique, my Noble Phantasm enhances itself with holy magic, and my own magical resistance is high.
            “I am confident in my skills as a knight, and I know that I will be able to protect you through any danger.
            “—However, my Noble Phantasm is easily recognizable due to its size and shape. So if it’s unavoidable that we must fight, then I would prefer to try to end things quickly and cleanly.”

            The girl speaks with the quiet assurance of a general, and I let her words sink in slowly.
            …Yggdra Yuril Artwaltz, the legendary conqueror who was the most famed sovereign of the ancient country Fantasinia.
            She has one Noble Phantasm and one only—the massive bastard sword Gran Centurio, a holy weapon passed down through her family.
            It is the one and only Noble Phantasm of the Artwaltz line of heroes.
            As Yggdra says, swords that size are rare, and combined with her stature, any scholar who knows heroes well should be able to discover her identity if she uses it too freely.
            She’s fairly well-recognized as a hero, even if she doesn’t have the popularity of the ancient heroes of Greco-Roman mythology nor the cultural importance of British knight-heroes like King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, and so if she used her Noble Phantasm, it would be easy for someone to realize who she was on the spot, then look up her weaknesses.

            So perhaps more than other Servants, Yggdra’s Noble Phantasm is something that must be used sparingly.
            I am confident that I have enough prana to back up its usage as long as Yggdra supplements it with her own magical energy.
            But if it is used, it must either be a killing shot or close enough to one that the enemy can be finished off directly afterward.
            …Yggdra’s own magical capacity is nothing to sneeze at, but even with her prana added to my own, I don’t think I want to risk her having to use her Noble Phantasm for multiple attacks in a short time period.

            As we consider things like that, I finish preparing the food.
            I take Yggdra’s portion to her before I get my own, and she waits for me to sit down before she raises her utensils.
            …By my own judgment, everything has been well-seasoned.
            There are no mistakes like this afternoon.
            But I still hold my breath and watch from the corner of my eye as she takes her first bite.

            …
            She pauses, her eyes widening slightly and her eyebrows raising.
            …And then she smiles.
            “This is very good.”

            …It’s that inexplicable feeling again.
            Just being acknowledged by this girl, is somehow like I’m being healed.

            “—I’m glad.”

           …Since my performance has been deemed adequate, we prepare for our first-ever patrol in comfortable silence.
            We’re only going outside to observe, so Yggdra will be in spirit form and I will dampen my spiritual presence.

            The sun is going down outside, and the activity in the city is already slowly dying down.
            I show Yggdra around the shopping district of Shinto, and give brief descriptions of the different areas to her as we come across them.
            We take our time.
            I don’t sense the presence of any other magi, and so for now, all there is to do is give her a tour of the vast battleground of Fuyuki.
            —There’s a difference.
            Yggdra is an honest person, and so it’s easy to tell that there’s a difference.
            The places where people gather and the shops are the ones that Yggdra responds to as a person, and the old battle scars from the past wars are the ones that she responds to as a warrior.
            …Well, that may seem something of a given.
            But the difference in her reactions is so great that she might well be two different people.

            …Finally.
            The dyed-red townscape begins to be stained the blue of night, and we head for the bridge.

            It is eight o’clock.
            Already, fewer people are visible outside.
            Especially in Miyama, the residential district we’re heading to, everyone will already be safe inside their homes.
            The scars left upon this land from the past Grail Wars seem to have left a residual instinct upon the people that “it’s dangerous to be outside after dark”.
            …It’s relaxing in that there will be fewer victims, and also that magi such as myself may be active after dark.

            In the gloom, we cross the bridge.
            There’s another park near to here where we can get our bearings. After that, I can point out the landmarks to Yggdra, and we can take a taxi home.
            …It’s getting late.
            It’s getting late, so we should retire early tonight in order to preserve our magical energy.
            …I think that.

            “Well, where do you think you’re going in such a hurry?”

            …And an unfamiliar woman’s voice rings out in the emptiness as we enter the park.

            She’s leaning on the low wall.
            …She is a woman who seems to be older than me.
            She carries a fan in one hand and a thick aura of magic about her body.

            …Hmm.
            Even between fellow magi, it’s not wise to advertise your presence like this.
            …Then.
            The obvious answer would be that she’s here to fight, despite the fact that the starting bell hasn’t been rung.

            …Well, there’s no rule to declare that we have to wait until all seven of the seats are filled before the battles start.
            But it’s ill-mannered.
            The cup to receive the blood spilled might not even be ready yet.
            I say nothing and glare at the woman, thinking things like that.

            “—Playing shy, are we?”
            Her painted lips curl upwards, and she stands upright, closing her fan with a snap.
            “Well, that’s fine too.
            “You seem to have some magical power, so it’s fine to play a little rough with you, right?
            “—You’ll make a good main course.”

            I don’t know what she’s talking about, but I direct my energy to my legs and get ready to move.
            The obvious route of escape is the bridge, but a retreating back is an easy target.
            …We’ll likely have to fight our way out of this situation.

            “I found a good one for you.
            “—Go ahead and feast on him, Avenger.”

            “—”
            …Avenger.
            That’s one of the irregular Servant classes.

 

            …Beside the woman.
            A tall figure in dark armor melts into existence.
            It’s a female knight with a tall, twisted broadsword.
            Her long pale hair sways as she takes a step forward, and her face shows no emotion at all.
            She points her weapon at me with a disinterested expression as though this is simply business as usual.

            “—”
            …I understand.
            That woman, Avenger, is a mass of magical energy that’s far too great for me to handle on my own.
            If I move suddenly, I will die.
            If I stay perfectly still, I will die.
            The only way out of this for me, is—

            “—Saber. It seems we’ve no choice but to engage the enemy here.”
            That soft chime parts the air again.
            Saber puts herself between Avenger and me.
            In her hands—,

            …Is the huge sword larger even than her, the holy sword known as her Noble Phantasm.

            “—Hoh.”
            Avenger’s eyes light up as she sinks into a prepared stance.
            “Looks like maybe tonight’ll actually be interesting after all.”

            “Tch.”
            Avenger’s Master is making a displeased face.
            …Was she really expecting that an enemy Master would roll over and be defeated so easily?
            ……Or was she just hoping to strengthen her Servant by making it eat the souls of hapless passersby?
            In either case, she looks irritated.

            “—Take care of this drivel quickly, Saber.”
            …Yggdra nods.
            In a bright white flash, she leaps forward, swinging her sword in a heavy strike—

            Avenger rushes forward as well, and sparks scatter through the air as their swords collide.
            They move so quickly that my eyes can hardly track them.
            Movements like dancing, blows like poetry.

            Avenger is tall and has a longer sword arm.
            Her longer legs give her more maneuverability.
            …However, Yggdra’s sword is much larger, and she swings it as though unaware of its weight.
            That doesn’t diminish its force, and that means she hits far harder.
            Her small body allows her movements to be much more precise and she’s harder to hit.
            …Just in that, the two swordswomen are quite well-matched.

            “—Heh.
            “You’re pretty cute for a little girl, and there’s no shame in your sword arm either.”
            Avenger grins and banters like she’s having fun.
            Yggdra doesn’t answer with words, but only focuses all her power on striking.
            Shockwaves run through the air like tidal waves.
            Like a gust of wind.
            Like a whirlwind of razors.
            The air explodes over and over as the two swords collide.

            “…Tch.”
            And yet Avenger’s Master continues making a displeased face.
            I risk looking away from the two swordswomen to watch her warily.

            “—Well, I suppose that if we’re going to fight then this is inevitable.
            “But, honestly. She gets too worked-up over the most useless things. What an unmanageable Servant.”
            Complaining, she starts to walk toward me.
            I tense.
            …This isn’t good.
            All of my magical energy is being used to support Yggdra right now, with none to spare for myself as she was after all just summoned.
            …If this were to come down to a fight between me and this enemy Master, I’d lose.
            No exceptions.

 

 

            …But.
            As Avenger’s Master walks towards me,
            …there’s a rain of red light from above, splitting the ground between us.

            Only when Avenger’s Master turns do I spare a glance.
            …There’s a figure standing atop the tall arches of the bridge.

            Rather than my eyes, I sense it strongly through my magic—that creature is the same as Saber and Avenger, a mass of magical energy that can only be a Servant.
            The figure leaps.
            With great grace, it alights on the top of a street lamp.
            It’s a young man.
            He wears clothes of dyed leather, and a matching cap covers his brown hair.
            His green eyes are sharp and honest, and in his hands he carries a large, ornately-carved bow.

            “—The war hasn’t yet begun.”
            He calls out in a stern but youthful voice.
            “It’s bad manners to start the banquet when important guests are missing.”

            “What’s it to you?”
            That’s Avenger’s voice.
            I turn to see that even she and Saber have stopped fighting and are staring at the intruder.
            “If one of us falls here, that’s just one opponent less for you to face, right?”

            Archer shakes his head.
            “That might be true.
            “Still, it’s important to respect the rules of fair play. This is still a competition with an overseer, after all.
            “—Or are you that unconcerned about the possibility that the supervisor dispatched by the Magic Association might take the Holy Grail away from you on a trivial penalty? Ms. Avenger’s Master.”

            Avenger’s Master scowls, but Avenger herself shrugs.
            “—Well, it doesn’t matter too much to me.
            “Are you saying you’re gonna stop us if we don’t go home like good little boys and girls, Archer? That might be kinda interesting.”
            She’s grinning in anticipation of a three-way fight.

            “—Avenger.”
            But.
            “This has gotten boring, so we may as well call it a night.”
            The black knight glares at her Master as though she wants to argue, but the witch has already snapped her fan closed and is stalking away.

            “…Tch.”
            She closes her eyes with a bitter expression and disappears.

            …I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding.
            That was unbelievably fortuitous.
            …Yggdra was doing all right on her own, but if it had come down to a fight between me and Avenger’s Master, I would have wound up dragging her down.

            “…Roswell, are you all right?”
            Yggdra has returned to my side, and murmurs to me worriedly.
            I smile, but the expression feels absent on my face.
            “—Yes.
            “Although that might not have been the case if not for your intervention, Archer. We should thank you.”
            But Archer shakes his head and smiles.
            “Call it a bad habit, but I don’t like watching people break the rules just to bully others.
            “I’d like to think that my Master and I aren’t the only ones who’d do something like this, so we don’t need to be thanked.”

            So saying, Archer jumps down from the lamppost.
            He turns slightly, and I hear the approaching footsteps of someone who must have been watching from a concealed location nearby.
            …From the prana signature I can feel, this is without doubt Archer’s Master, but…

            …The person who arrives is a young girl.
            She appears to be about the age of a middle school student, and is dressed in black and plaid.
            There’s a bird like a disheveled raven or crow perched on her shoulder that’s probably a conventional familiar.

            “…”
            She clasps her hands behind her back as she comes to a stop beside her Servant and stares at me from behind her hair.
            Archer smiles.
            “You can already tell that I’m Archer, but allow me to present my Master. This is Vienya.”

            “My name is Roswell, and this is Saber.
            “Even if you don’t believe that you deserve thanks, your interference still helped us a great deal, as we would have been at a disadvantage were we to start a fight here and now. So I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

            The girl Vienya smiles and holds out her hand.
            I reach out and clasp it.
            I don’t sense any ill intent in either of them.
            …And so I consider my options.

            …Releasing her hand, I turn to Yggdra.
            “—Saber.
            “From what I recall, you aren’t the type that likes to fight alone, right?”
            For a moment her eyes ask me what I mean, but then she realizes.
            She tilts her head like she’s thinking about it, pauses, and then nods.

            …If nothing else is clear about these people, it’s that they’re fair-minded.
            If they’d intended to attack us, they already would have done; bringing Archer into close range when his opponent is Saber is an act that gives up any advantage he might have.
            By that logic, it also shows willingness to trust.

            “—So.”
            I turn to Vienya and force myself to disregard her small stature and her age.
            “This will probably seem sudden, but I wonder if you would be willing to consider a temporary alliance with us?”