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re:Birth

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            —This is a story about a girl.

            When she was small, her world was made up of the people around her.
            Her father and mother always smiled at her and gave her kind words and gifts.
            In return for their love, she loved them more than anything.
            The other people around her were also kind.
            …Courtiers, nursemaids, teachers, and knights.
            All of them.
            Everyone.
            Her early years were like the garden of paradise, filled with white light, bordered by the green and gold and pale blue of the family’s colors.
            A palace of white marble, interspersed with gardens and beautiful things.
            A tiny world filled with warmth and kindness directed toward her.

            …It was only her.

            Of course, it wasn’t as though there were no other children at all.
            She sometimes saw the children of the people around her.
            …It was that in the end, she was the sole child of the king and queen.
            …They said.
            Before she was born, the queen gave birth to twin girls.
            But they died almost instantly after they were born because their bodies were too weak.
            ……And the queen could no longer bear children after her.

            When she was a small child, still dreaming in the embrace of a kind world—
            She knew well that she had had sisters before she was born.
            Their bodies were buried across the lake in a small tomb, avoided by everyone.
            …Because she was a princess and she didn’t know fear, she snuck out sometimes to visit it.
            It was a peaceful and quiet place, overgrown as the superstition of the people kept them from drawing near even to clean a royal tomb.
            She liked having the attention of both her parents, but all the same she wondered what it would have been like to have siblings.
            She daydreamed to herself sometimes that her sisters’ ghosts would become her playmates, or that the twins she had never met had actually escaped and survived somehow, ignorant to their heritage and waiting for their sister to find them.
            Eventually, she grew out of those games, but her curiosity about the path that had been closed before her birth was not something she could forget.

            In the kingdom’s war with the empire, one of the enemy generals was a girl slightly older than her.
            That girl was a fearsome valkyrie who fought with the fires of a personal grudge against the princess’ country, a great and terrible hatred of unknown origin.
            Several times on the battlefield, the princess asked why.
            The only response she got was that the enemy would never forgive her.

            The valkyrie was famed for being able to attack from any direction like a phantom, and so she was one of the most feared generals at the enemy’s disposal.
            And there were many feared generals at the enemy’s disposal.
            A knight like a god of protection and another knight whose power was matched by his bloodlust, the small girl who was the usurper’s own sister, the magus who even in the age of gods performed feats that were “impossible” by orthodox magecraft—
            Among them all, the one who fought with the most venom and resolve was that valkyrie.

            In one battle, after her troops had rescued her from the enemy’s imprisonment, that valkyrie was sniped in the face by one of the princess’ soldiers.
            The enemy was badly injured and even lost an eye.
            But the next time she appeared, she was perfectly fine.

            The princess had killed the magus who bent the laws of the world with his thaumaturgy.
            There should have been no way for that wound to heal.
            …In addition to which, the valkyrie followed her even into the holy land that should have been sealed off to all but the priesthood and the royal family, in an attempt to interfere with the coronation.
            When she demanded to know what sorcery the enemy had used to break into such a hallowed place, she was scoffed at.
            …The newly-crowned queen was not stupid.
            But the only answer she arrived at should have been “impossible”.

            She thought about it.
            In the back of her mind, she held her theories, and considered them over and over at night when her army made camp.
            All throughout the rest of the war and the start of her invasion into the empire’s territory, she thought about it deep inside her heart.

            —And finally.
            Through her ally’s sacrifice, she and her men were able to enter the imperial capital.
            Waiting for them in the streets…, were two girls.
            The armor that they wore was almost identical, and at a glance the only way to differentiate them was that one of the girls was missing an eye.
            The girls spoke of a “great sin” that the kingdom had committed, the root of their deep grudge.
            As her people panicked, the young queen explained to them that she had suspected for a long time that this enemy might be a pair of twins alternating their attacks.
            She did not tell them why.

            Those girls looked very much like her.
            They looked at her hatefully out of eyes the same color as hers, and under their armor they had tied back blond hair almost the same shade as hers.
            The names they addressed each other by were the same as the ones the queen remembered on the tomb.
            —Still.
            There was still a chance that this was a coincidence.
            She didn’t know whether she was clinging to that possibility foolishly or not.
            She could not believe it of her father to do what those girls seemed to silently accuse.
            She could not…, believe that her childhood had been that much of a lie.

            There was no justice in it.
            There was no justice…, anywhere.

            The capital city of the empire was in flames.
            The citizens who could not fight cowered, shielded by the two valkyries’ soldiers.
            In the distance, the queen could hear the voice of the usurper calling out orders, carrying out a last-minute evacuation to the north of the people who had not yet been able to escape.
            The two girls were simply buying time.

            Still.
            Two platoons could never hold against an entire army.
            One of the valkyries, the girl with one eye, fell in battle.

            —The other girl,
            ……cried in despair and swore vengeance upon her sister’s name.

            But.
            The emperor’s voice split the air and ordered that girl to retreat.
            As the queen reorganized her forces, the two argued briefly.
            …But the valkyrie submitted when her leader mentioned a “last resort”.

            So the tattered remains of the army that had nearly crushed the queen’s country pulled back to the great black castle that stood against the mountains.
            And the queen gave chase with her mind spinning.

            —Inside the obsidian halls, the battle continued.
            For a moment she nearly cornered her enemy, but her army was flanked by the remaining valkyrie’s troops and the usurper escaped.
            Still.
            There was no way that either of them would survive for long.

            The queen pursued the valkyrie throughout the great hall of the castle.
            Even if it was an answer she didn’t want to hear, she had to know.
            But there was no way to truly ask now.
            The hands of both girls were stained with too much blood for anyone’s words to reach.

            And so at the end of a fierce battle, the queen struck a fatal wound upon her enemy.
            …The girl only a year older than her called out to her leader.
            She thanked the emperor for his kindness and support, for saving her life and sheltering her.
            She asked with her last breath that he crush the kingdom that had abandoned the two valkyries for political ends.

            Certainty—settled in her heart.
            There was no way to deny it any longer.

            The queen watched as her older sister, her last surviving family member, died from the wounds that the queen herself had inflicted.
            She was tired.
            There was no room left in her heart to hold all the grief.
            She stared down at the freshest corpse she had made to pave her path to justice knowing that she should at least honor her lost sister with tears but unable to shed even one.
            —In the distance, she heard the voice of the emperor raise in mourning.
            Even as she herself was too emotionally spent to do anything more than keep fighting, the man whose family she continued to kill one after another grieved.

            She had always wanted to live with the sisters she had been told had died.
            —Perhaps.
            If the world had been kinder.
            That simple wish could have been granted.

            Thinking that, she lifted her sword and pointed it at the only enemy left alive.

            …
            ……
            ………I wake.
            I awaken with the long-ago echoes of Yggdra’s pain still weighing on my heart.
            I awaken with her memories rising to suffocate me, even as I turn off my alarm and get dressed.
            “—”
            I know her legend, of course.
            …Of course.
            I wouldn’t have the right to summon her as a Servant otherwise.
            I couldn’t call myself a descendant of the man who fought at her side otherwise.
            …It’s just that there’s such a great difference between reading someone’s exploits in a history book and actually experiencing them watching over that person’s shoulder in their memories.
            Still.
            I try to accept this as the natural order of things as I am Yggdra’s Master and go downstairs.

            Rose is already there, apparently in the middle of making some form of dish.
            It doesn’t appear to be any kind of Western breakfast, but rather a meal that one would expect to have in the daytime.
            The ingredients seem to be noodles, spices, and grilled shrimp.

            “—Oh hey, good morning. It’s my turn, so I went ahead and started using the kitchen.”
            “Good morning. It’s all right.”

            I sit down at the table as we wait for the others to awaken.

            “We’re going to have to get back to work today, since we can’t just wait for the last two Servants to kill each other if we want to win the war.
            “So I’m making something to give us the energy to keep going.”
            Ah, I see.
            That does make sense.
            My energy levels are about back to normal even after having been drained by Yggdra last night, so I should be all right for support magic today.
            …And Yggdra, who drained that prana in the first place, should be doing even better.

            “Hey Roswell, is there some reason your face is all red?”
            Rose asks with a grin like she knows exactly why.
            …I don’t answer.
            Well, we were doing that right here, so it’s natural to be a bit embarrassed thinking about it.
            I’ve never done that kind of thing with anyone else.
            ……Then again, most of my prior relationships were casual or professional in nature.
            Yggdra is the only one that I’ve loved enough to indulge like that, even if indulging her does mean avoiding her giving my feelings a real answer.
            Once I think “I like her”, it’s hopeless—it’s that kind of thing.

            Anyway, Ein comes down next, and nearly falls asleep again on the table until Rose starts to pick on him over the counter as she cooks.
            ……Lancer is next, and he simply waits in the next room over.
            That priest’s robe of his doesn’t stick out amidst the old-fashioned furniture, and only his brightly colored cloak clashes with his surroundings.
            Yggdra arrives last.
            She is dressed and perfectly awake, and acts seamlessly as if none of last night had actually happened, sitting down in time to be served.

            We talk as we eat.
            We discuss various places that we might start searching for Caster or Berserker as everyone goes back to help themselves to more of Rose’s pot of pasta and shrimp.
            Ein says that he believes Berserker’s hideout is somewhere in Miyama, and that seems to hold with where we tend to have found them.
            And it’s more practical to go after the known element rather than the unknown anyway, so our discussion turns to sweep patterns and whether or not we should split up and how we should communicate if that were the case.

            We continue to talk even as we do our dishes and put them away, and rearrange ourselves around the table with our map to keep talking strategy.
            Yggdra comes into conflict with Ein and Rose at some points because all of us have different styles of attack, and Yggdra believes that her own experience with Berserker should give her words more weight than they’re accepted with.
            Even Lancer joins in the discussion at times.

            …In the middle of all that, the doorbell rings.
            The discussion pauses as I stare, trying to imagine who might come to this place when the boundary field should have a repelling effect on mundanes.

            “That presence—”
            Rose is frowning.
            “I’m sure that’s Hector-sama, but what would he be doing here?”

            …Hector.
            I’ve heard them mention that name before.
            That is the name of the supervisor of this war, the man who dispatched them to keep the Holy Grail out of the hands of those who would use it for evil.
            To achieve the status of supervisor, he must have been approved by both the Magic Association and the Church.
            On top of which, he must be powerful, as there’s been a problem in the past few wars involving the supervisor getting killed either by a combatant or in the maelstrom of the war itself.
            …Now that Rose mentions it, I can feel a dense magical presence outside the boundary field of the house.

            The doorbell rings again.
            “—Roswell, I don’t know what he wants, but we should answer.
            “He is the supervisor.”
            Ein sounds uneasy.

            …Everyone gradually leaves the table and stands facing the door.
            I go to answer it.

            …There is a man of indeterminate age standing outside.
            He wears dark hooded robes that hide his features.
            All I can see is the ends of dark hair and the unlined lower half of his face.
            He is just slightly taller than me, and his magical presence is extremely weighty.
            ……He’s undoubtedly much more powerful than me or any other magus in this house.
            The odd presence around him is very dissimilar to Nessiah’s, but I still cannot help but compare them.
            The air about them has a similar sense of deadliness.
            Nessiah’s was less—
            “Stale” isn’t quite the way to put it, but even though I could sense that that man’s hands were bloody, there was something more alert and vital about his aura.
            Breathing the air around this man called Hector is like breathing in bloody smoke.
            Its weight makes me feel dizzy.

            “—Master of Saber.
            “I hear that you have formed an alliance with my protégé.
            “—I will have you let me in, as I have a matter to discuss with you.”

            I step aside and gesture for him to enter the house.
            …As he’s the supervisor, I cannot question him.

            “—”
            As compared to the tension among the rest of us, Lancer is staring at the man in dark robes with open distrust and dislike.

            “Hoh.”
            The supervisor, Hector, smiles at this reaction.
            “—The Holy Grail must indeed have a sense of irony for one such as this to be summoned as your Servant.”

            “—You.
            “What are you doing in a place such as this?”
            Lancer asks in cold tones that are nothing like the language he uses to address the rest of us.
            But Ein reaches out to rest a hand on his arm as if to silence him.
            Like a warning.
            …I can understand.
            My awe of this man is telling me that fighting him would be dangerous, perhaps even with the aid of our Servants.
            We cannot afford to curry his displeasure.

            “—Hector-sama, please.
            “What did you wish to tell us?”
            Ein’s voice is cautious.
            Still, he speaks where I am still not able to.

            “It is about the direction of the war, as you have surmised.
            “—You have done well to make it this far.
            “Yes, better than I might have expected.”

            There’s something about his words that I don’t like.
            Call it instinct, but his demeanor doesn’t seem to line up with what Ein and Rose have said of him……

            “There are only four Servants remaining.
            “And Berserker’s Master is enough of a liability that the two of them are not and could never be a threat at this late stage.
            “—So it is time for you to resign.”

            A chill runs through the room.
            “—Hector…sama?”

            A mirthless smile.
            The man in his dark robes makes a coldly pleased expression.
            “I am saying that I no longer have need of you to act as my proxy.
            “This war has already been won.”

            “—”
            At that moment, Lancer flings Ein behind him, and his Noble Phantasm appears.
            He glares at Hector with his wings spread wide.

            Still, Hector shows no concern.

            “Caster.”

            “—”
            The sound of many people simultaneously swallowing their breath in disbelief and fear.

            In the middle of the room,
            …a great form begins to appear.
            Long white limbs, and a bare body encircled by pieces of heavy white armor.
            Long golden hair and cold eyes of the same color.
            The angel with great orange wings gazes at us silently, a tall staff in her hand.

            —At that instant, I am shoved hard to the side.

            Yggdra, the one who pushed me, kicks off against the floor with her sword raised.
            At the same time, Lancer stretches out to shield Ein and Rose behind him, holding his weapon ready to attack the Master before him.

            On hands and knees, I watch from behind the furniture, trying to get my breath back.
            “—”
            That Servant, Caster, is bad news.
            I can tell just by looking at her that she is extremely powerful.
            This enclosed space is no good if we want to fight her.
            …On top of which, her Master…

            The only way to survive is to get out of here, regroup, and attack strategically as they pursue us; staying in this house is death.
            …So.
            The only way to win is to make sure we all get out of here.
            That is easier for me than for the others.
            I have been sent flying in the direction of the door so that it’s only a few meters’ run.
            But Ein and Rose are still in an area where there is no exit except to try to stop and break a window.
            The boundary field is also still up, so it would be best to head for the door.

            Knowing this, I push myself into a partial standing position.

            There’s a sharp clash of steel as Caster repels Yggdra with her staff.
            A simple attack like that will not be able to wound her.
            She has a great “protection” that nullifies attacks below a certain rank, a defensive Noble Phantasm of great power.
            To defeat Caster, we must use all our strength and attack her with our Noble Phantasms in return; this is only common sense.
            But in a small area like this, using Yggdra’s Noble Phantasm—and probably this goes for Lancer’s as well—would be fatal for us.
            We’re not such storybook magi as to be able to protect ourselves from enemy attacks, friendly fire, and the house falling down.
            So we need open space to be able to do anything in this battle at all.

            Yggdra is keeping Caster busy.
            So I—
            I must distract Caster’s Master in order to give Ein and Rose an opening to escape.

            —Now.

            I dash to a space of cover close to the door, and while shielding myself behind a high-backed chair, I light up my Magic Crest and instantly fire a barrage of Fin shots at Hector.
            Even if they do nothing but roll off, I must at least draw his attention to me only for a few moments.
            Just a few moments would be enough—

            “—”
            “Oh—”

            Hector lifts a hand, and my attacks simply dissipate without even taking up a second of his concentration.
            —I bite my lip in frustration.
            I straighten up and try to prepare a stronger magic.
            No matter what, I’ll definitely—

            “Ah—!”
            But at that moment, Yggdra lets out a pained voice.
            She is blown back and crashes against the coffee table, which bends under her weight and nearly splinters down the middle.
            There is blood all over her shoulder and the right side of her chest, and she breathes painfully as she struggles to stand up.

            “—”
            Still.
            She stands, shaking her head as if to clear it of dizziness and raising her sword.

            At the same moment she rushes back forward—
            Lancer also kicks off the ground, striking for Hector’s body.

            And it’s then.
            Rose grasps Ein by the arm and drags him towards the door at a run.
            I make to follow them, but—
            As they slip through the door and out into the open, there’s a great explosion of electrical power between me and the door, leaving a wide scorch mark and keeping me from being able to follow.

            “—”
            There is a sound of flesh being pierced and a great splatter.
            I turn back to the battle.
            Lancer is staggering, and just like Yggdra, his clothes are soaked with blood.
            All the same, he lifts his weapon as if to keep fighting.

            “Tch.”
            Hector clicks his tongue and holds out his hand.
            “You remain as worthless as ever.
            “Tools should remain obedient tools.”

            “Be that as it may.”
            Lancer retorts in an even tone of voice.
            “I have been summoned into this war.
            “—I am no longer your tool, traitor to Asgard.”

            Hector speaks.
            …It’s again extremely similar to the kind of magic Nessiah uses.
            But it seems to be structured more like orthodox thaumaturgy.
            I can sense the connect and triggering of a magic circuit as he continues to fire bolts of energy like solid spears of ether at Lancer.
            …The holy spear in his hands deflects some as he advances, but at the same time—

            “—”
            Lancer’s wings are steadily pierced and his limbs are grazed.
            The clothes that are so red still betray the bloodstain spreading.
            The injury must be serious if it still hasn’t closed.

            And Yggdra is just barely blocking Caster from attacking me.
            Caster’s lesser magics roll off of Yggdra’s body because of her protection, but there’s still that staff and the way that Caster continues to block attacks with her own protection to the point of reflecting them.
            —This is not a situation where we can win.
            Lancer is too closed in to maneuver.
            Yggdra doesn’t have full range of movement with her injury.

            The path outside is about three meters away.
            —And what then?
            All we can be sure of is that we must retreat.

            “—Tch.”
            I can’t simply stand here.
            Staying here would mean death.
            I draw up my power to shield me and run.

            “—!!”
            Instantly.
            Spells so powerful I can feel them in my bones rock my makeshift shield and push me closer to the wall.
            But it’s too late—!!

            “Saber, follow it up—!!”

            I shout with all my might, and my hand burns as one of the Command Spells goes off.
            “Right—!!”
            Without a second’s pause, Yggdra appears at my side and propels me out the door with her arm around my waist.

            “Lancer!!”

            In the blur of color that is too much for my senses to handle, I hear Ein’s voice rise to the pitch of a scream, and there is another crack as Lancer appears.

            “—Right, we can’t win this way!
            “Stay close!”

            As if signaling to the others, Rose shouts with magical power burning in her limbs.

            Lancer takes hold of Ein and moves immediately, too fast to be seen. Rose follows them with the spell she has cast increasing her speed to the point where she is only a blur.
            And Saber grasps hold of me and follows.
            I squint my eyes instinctively as we charge.
            All I can take in are vague flashes of the city and the bridge and the town beyond until we come to a stop before an unassuming house that has been reinforced with a boundary field.
            Rose ushers us in and closes the boundary field behind us.

            “—”
            …It’s bad.

            We are given no time to rest.
            It’s not as though we were pursued.
            …No, because our enemy probably already knows this.

            “—”
            The great sound of Lancer’s lungs working has taken on a thin wheeze like air escaping from a balloon.
            That is because his body has been punctured repeatedly.
            I can tell.
            As someone who knows the basics of healing, I can tell.
           His lung has been pierced through, his wings are broken, and most of his internal organs have been sliced apart.
            And because no immediate treatment could be given, he also lost a lot of blood during our escape, and these wounds are too serious to be healed by Lancer’s own internal mechanisms as a Servant.
            —He is emptied out inside.
            It is not so bad that he will immediately disappear from this world, but as we do not have the means to repair such extensive damage, that time will surely be soon.

            And Yggdra—
            She is not so badly wounded as Lancer, but her injury will certainly take far too long to repair.
            …Her arm is broken from the shoulder, her ribs are crushed, and her skin is burnt where it has not been torn.
            She is breathing painfully with a grim expression and a white face.
            …I can help her just a little bit, and she won’t die, but she will not be able to fight for the last few days of this Grail War.

            “—”
            Ein grits his teeth.
            “—Lancer, I’m sorry.”

            Lancer simply closes his eyes.
            “It is no fault of yours.
            “—I only respect the Master who will order me to do what must be done.”
            …He will wait for the order.
            He says that he will not do so unless specifically told.

            Ein takes a deep breath and raises his arm.
            “—Lancer.
            “Give the rest of your energy to Saber.”

            …I brace myself.
            I feel a hand tap against my shoulder and turn to see Rose standing there.

            “—Come on.
            “The boundary field isn’t anywhere near strong enough to keep them out right now, you and I need to power it up.”

            I don’t want to leave, but I don’t want to stay either.
            …In the end I let Rose drag me outside the house.

            As we leave, Ein sits down with no expression on his face.
            His gaze seems very tired.

            I do exactly as Rose tells me, copying her spells so finely that sweat breaks out on my skin at every important point around the house.
            I exert all the power I can stand and give myself a headache as if to drown out the very faint reactions from my Command Spell.
            ……All of us understand.
            There’s no other way for any of us to survive.
            Neither of them are “willing” in any sense but that.
            …To give us a chance at “victory”.
            In Lancer’s case, to ensure the continued protection of his Master.
            I can sense Yggdra’s desperation and bitterness through my Command Spell, and I know how detached she actually feels.
            “—”
            One of our Servants must survive, and only one of them can.
            Yggdra is our best bet if we want to fight again, if we want to face Caster.
            …Maybe you can argue that there is no way we could have foreseen such a thing.
            But still, our complacence and incompetence led to this.
            …Lancer has to sacrifice himself like this, Yggdra has to go through this discomfort, because we were lacking as Masters.

            Honestly.
            …I understand emotionally and mentally, but it still hurts.
            It hurts because I want to keep her to myself, almost as much as it hurts that we messed up so badly and that this is costing us a life.
            But what I feel is nothing compared to the others.
            ……So I’ll swallow and accept my own selfish emotions.

            It takes us the better part of half an hour, and only when the boundary field is reinforced to Rose’s liking does she allow me to go back inside.
            She does not come along, saying that she’s going to double-check everything once more.
            …I think to myself as I walk back in the front door that perhaps I could have at least stayed to make things easier for Yggdra.
            But then, just like this moment is one that Ein and I must bear as Masters,
            ……that was a private exchange between the two Servants, a burden that they had to bear because of what they are.

            In the middle of the bloody living room.
            Yggdra, whose breathing has evened, is holding Lancer in both arms.
            Ein is kneeling beside the sofa, holding Lancer’s hand.
            …There’s a transparency about him, and even without the way that his tattered wings are drifting off into dust, I know that he is about to disappear.
            There is almost no magical energy left in his body.

            “—”

            I sit down beside Yggdra and rest a hand on her back to support her.
            Something in her posture eases at my touch, if only slightly.
            …I want her to know that at least I am here.

            Slowly.
            Lancer disappears in total silence.
            Ein sits still with his eyes red until Rose arrives to take him back to his own room.

            This place is a mess.
            …But we sit quietly in the middle of all the blood Lancer shed.
            I begin the strongest healing I can to help convince Yggdra’s wound to knit.
            It has already stopped worsening because of Lancer’s help and will heal on its own if given time, but we don’t have that much time to spare.
            …If I can mostly heal this injury, then after a day of rest Yggdra will be able to do battle once again.
            I give her all my concentration.
            I don’t just want to heal Yggdra physically.
            I want her to know that I am here, and I want to transmit my own warmth in a way other than holding her.
            …I don’t know just how uncomfortable that must have been for her, even though she was willing to protect all of our survival, but if she is in any way in need of comfort I want to give it.

            It is still the middle of the day.
            “—”
            It takes another half an hour until I have done all I can, and by that time I am dizzy with the amount of prana I have spent.

            Rose arrives in the room after that.
            “There’s a bedroom that you guys can use.
            “—I can tell you need rest, and I’m going to take care of this place once you guys are upstairs, so follow me.”

            She takes us to a plain guest room with little ornamentation.
            “—”
            Yggdra erases her form, and I collapse onto the bed.
            I should honestly go bathe, but I have no energy for that.
            In the end I can’t even thank Rose for giving us this place.
            I simply close my eyes, and my consciousness leaves me—