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Vagrant Grail Cadenza

Chapter Text

            It’s bitter cold, and when I open my eyes I can clearly see my own breath.
            …Perhaps because of the temperature, it’s difficult to move my limbs.

            I try to rub some life into my arms and stand up, letting a white sigh drift out.
            …I’m bad with extreme temperatures, but I should be all right here for a while—
            Really, I don’t have much choice but to believe that.

            This place should be the best stronghold available to me, as it’s outwardly unassuming and I’ve erected the boundary field with all of my strength.
            No magus with sense would choose a place like this to set up his base.
            There are fine gaps in the old wooden walls and the wind cuts through it like knives.
            It’s a miracle that there’s running water and enough electricity for a few lamps.
            …There’s also a gas stove that should be fine for when I need to heat things or warm my body, and as long as it’s not completely uninhabitable this is preferable to where I fled from.

            “—Even so, it’s certainly cold.”
            Since I’m alone, I let myself complain a bit as I warm up water and a washcloth to clean my body.
            It is winter.
            Spring should even come to this town soon, but it is still winter and even though snow and frost don’t stay on the ground for long, they have a bothersome habit of piling up.
            I should just be grateful that this is a February ritual instead of being deeper into winter, as my body might actually give out in colder weather in a beat-up shack like this.

            There’s no food.
            And as I’m supposed to be saving up my prana for tomorrow morning, it’s not exactly a good thing for me not to be able to eat.
            For practical purposes, I still need at least one meal per day.

            I still really don’t like doing this, but what other choice have I got?
            I wrap my body in the patched coat and check the number of coins in the pocket.
            …There should still be enough for a while, and I’ll just have to scavenge more.

            I close my eyes and open up the veins of magic running through my body.
            The illusion is cast in an instant, and should hold all day.
            —This is magic to cause the handful of coins I have to appear far more than they’re worth.
            It’s a bit distasteful, but I have no funds to speak of and it’s better than stealing money outright.
            Even if it’s only five yen, I can at least pay something in return for the food I need to survive.

            Still, I sigh.
            If my situation were discovered, I don’t know what would become of me.
            Even in the best case scenario, if I were to be moved to some form of shelter, I would just become visible to that man, and my activities would be severely limited.

            So I just have to be careful.

            I depart the old shack and look around.
            This place, which has surely remained here for many years, lies on the banks of the great river that cuts Fuyuki City in two.
            A short ways away is the suspension bridge that leads to Miyama, and the same road leads further into town to Shinto in the other direction.

            For now I’m headed for the marketplace in Miyama.
            The air bites at my skin as I cross over to the stairs, and I squint through the wind as I pass over the walkway.
            This place is narrow and feels a little unsteady despite the good view of the river.

            Even so, this cold is entirely too bitter—
            I would have thought that the temperature shock would have worn off by now, but after all that time being kept in that man’s workshop, I may just be too unused to outside air.
            On the one hand, I can breathe freely, but on the other this cold is just too much.
            …To be fair to myself, my body isn’t in the best condition either, but I know that it’s just going to get worse from here.
            There’s a pressure like the tug of a harness against my ribcage, a phantom sensation.
            On its own, that’s not so much to bear—but the fact remains that I just can’t be entirely sure what this is going to be like for me, and I’m apprehensive.

            I can count four out of eight, and one of those four carries a sense of wrongness.
            It’s getting closer to the date, and the optimal time for me to seize one of the remaining seats is tomorrow.

            —The reason we’re here in Fuyuki is because of the Holy Grail War.
            It is a ritual in which seven magi gather together, are approved by the Grand Grail of Fuyuki and given the ability to summon a Heroic Spirit, and as pairs of Master and Servant destroy one another.
            The killed Servants are processed by the Lesser Grail, usually a man-made vessel, and at the end of the war the Lesser and Grand Grails are used to open the Holy Grail, a great gate to Akasha known as the Heaven’s Feel.

            The original ritual was carried out between three families.
            There were the Einzbern, who created the vessel to hold the Heroic Spirits whose energy would be used to open the Grail.
            There were the Tohsaka, who allowed the other magi to use this spiritually advantageous land to construct the Grand Grail.
            And there were the Makiri, currently called the Matou, who created the system of binding the Servants to the Masters’ will.

            Originally, the Heaven’s Feel was a ritual between these three families and their invited guests to achieve the Holy Grail.
            But once the ritual was completed, the question arose as to who should possess the Grail, and it gradually became a war where one representative of each family, along with outside magi, killed each other by force.
            The Heaven’s Feel was conducted in gradually shortening cycles.
            Ordinarily, several decades would pass between these cycles.

            The first ritual was before everything went wrong.
            —The second went about as normally as one could wish for.
            In the third ritual, the Einzbern introduced an irregular element to the vessel, and the ritual itself was sent awry when the Lesser Grail was accidentally damaged.
            Because of that irregular element, the fourth ritual became Heaven’s Fall, and it was left incomplete.
            —Ten years later, the fifth Heaven’s Feel—the second Heaven’s Fall—began and was completed.
            The Einzbern magus claimed victory, and shut down the “core” of the Grand Grail.
            The corruption within Fuyuki’s Holy Grail was purified six months after that time, although the cycle should already have been closed.

            And now, five years after the fifth ritual, the sixth Heaven’s Feel is beginning.
            The closed-off circuit was reconnected and jumpstarted.

            The Einzbern no longer have a vessel to contribute, as they are satisfied with their prize.
            The last Tohsaka magus should be in her final year at the Clock Tower, and is anyway ineligible, as she was a participant in the fifth war.
            The Matou magus was also a participant.

            —So this war is being conducted by outsiders.

            That man—Hector of the Seven Magi, a brilliant and ancient sorcerer—surely seeks the power for his own means.
            This war should be bigger than those before it.
            The aftereffects of the two incomplete Heaven’s Fall rituals have left a great amount of prana in this land, and eight Servants can be summoned instead of the usual seven.
            Ordinarily, it takes six Servants’ deaths for the Grail to ripen.
            With seven Servants dead, the gate will reach Akasha.
            …With the power of the Origin at their disposal, ancient magi and the magi of this age truly can turn the Grail into their wish-granting machine.
            One with sufficient knowledge and power could even become god.

            But at the same time, that man’s hubris has gotten the better of him if he’s complacent enough to believe that the other Masters will not also fight for all that they are worth.

            This is—my chance.
            I will begin the ritual tomorrow just past daybreak, regain what I have lost, and break the “shackles” binding me at last—

            …Well, to do that I have to survive.
            And to survive, I need to eat.

            It’s a simple enough form of planning.
            Something hot to warm up my body in the cold of the morning, and then smaller items of food to serve as something like a meal later on in the day.
            It doesn’t matter if they’re something I can heat up or not.
            Food is just fuel to keep my body running, and when maintaining myself is annoying I just have to make sure to pay attention to it.
            Some time ago, I fell into the bad habit of ignoring my physical needs completely, but I can’t let that get in the way at a time like this.

            …I suppress the urge to sigh and survey my options.
            Honestly, food here isn’t as roughly made as what I’ve become used to.
            All the same, in my experience any food made by “humans” can’t compare to that person’s cooking, so I’ve learned to have low expectations.

            “To start with, even if it was only for a short time, I was spoiled for food from the beginning.”
            Where I was born, the digestive system as the people of the world understand it now was seen as inefficient and in the way, and so the upper classes of humans had undergone sublimation to eliminate the need and absorb nutrients from a different source.
            …As for those like me, we were still shackled by the needs of our bodies, but that was all right, as if those snobbish people weren’t going to use the rich materials for meals then we would go ahead and take what we needed for ourselves.

            And even if you’re no good at cooking at all, if the quality of the ingredients is higher, then you’re going to make a better dish.
            The people of this era have learned to prepare food in a more pleasing sense, but the materials are still lower-quality.

            …In the worst case, I often can’t force myself to eat very much.
            Sometimes when working large-scale magecraft and rituals I even experience nausea, so I should give my body only what “fuel” it absolutely requires and no more.

            If it’s not that person’s cooking, I won’t eat it—
            This isn’t the time to think such things.
            First of all, I only have myself to blame.

            I suppress another sigh and continue through the marketplace.

            All right.

            With the change I got back from the vendors, I have more money than before.
            These small amounts of vegetables and dried meat should be enough for the rest of the day, so now what’s left is buying something warm—

            There’s someone at what looks like a crepe stand at the other side of the road.
            Even in this weather, or maybe because it’s this kind of weather, there’s quite the line queued up to buy one.
            I can’t help but gravitate in that general direction.
            …Um, well—I’m bad with overly sweet things like sugary candy, but fruit with cream or chocolate should be all right.
            And—I need the energy, it’s true.

            I have to squint to read the menu, and thankfully the line isn’t too slow, as it’s so cold that I can barely feel my fingers and toes even when my hands are in my pockets.
            …With the illusions on the coins, I’m easily able to pay for a strawberry-and-banana crepe.
            It’s hot, and just wrapping my hands around the thin paper covering it makes my body feel as though it’s slowly filling with warmth.
            There’s not too much cream or chocolate, so it’s not a cloying kind of sweetness.
            It’s just going to get cold if I take too long, especially when walking over the bridge, so I eat it as quickly as I can without rushing myself.
            —And the sensation of warmth lingers for quite a while.

            It’s still the middle of the day when I walk back over the bridge.
            The shack is exactly how I left it, but all the same, I close the boundary field carefully.
            If I’m lucky, the boundary field will help this place retain a little heat.

            It takes two tries, but I’m able to get the little stove working.
            Normally I just light it using magic, but I have to conserve prana as much as possible right now.
            I sit down as close to the stove as I can and wrap the thin blanket around myself.
            …In this place that I can barely even count as a makeshift workshop, I will put everything on the line less than twenty-four hours from this moment.

            First of all, it’s unthinkable that I should fail.
            This is a disadvantageous place and I’m in a disadvantageous condition, but I care nothing for those facts.
            Most Masters would have to prepare a catalyst if they wished to summon a specific Servant, or else they will just be assigned one randomly as a hero appropriate to them will answer their call.
            I don’t have anything like that.
            But I will call for a “specific” person, and I will trust him to answer my summons before anyone else.
            I can do nothing more.

            Within my heart.
            The foreign sense tells me that there are still half the seats available.
            The various magi who were selected may still be making their way towards Fuyuki, but I have no way of telling that.
            I can only sense the Servants until I know who their Masters actually are.

            He’ll answer.
            If somehow he’s slow and doesn’t take my hand when I offer it, I’ll just make it so that only he can answer.
            …He’s… not the kind of person who wouldn’t answer my call if it were at all in his power to do so, and I have to have faith in that.

            The day passes slowly.
            I meditate to pass the time, and when my body starts to get uncomfortable I check the house and then prepare the rest of the food.
            I heat up the dried meat a little to make it easier to chew.
            …Well, I’d prefer something softer and rarer, but the saying goes that beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m barely better than a beggar.
            It has a spicy flavor that’s a little distasteful, but it will give my body important nutrients.

            There are a lot of unknown elements in this battle.
            …I understand the mechanics of the Lesser Grail and Grand Grail from an academic perspective.
            My specialties have always been in creating magical artifacts and such, so it would be shameful for me not to understand a great tool-based ritual like this one.
            And I know the history of the war.
            —The problem is my own position in that war, and that the capabilities of the enemies are all as yet unknown.
            The card I shall play is unquestionably the strongest.
            But there are some battles that cannot be won by “strength” alone.

            I’m sure that that man will prepare a powerful Servant.
            He was already making preparations to summon when I ran.
            That was, in fact, how he came to ignore me enough for me to escape.

            And it would be unlike him to not have a few extra agents in case of his failure.
            I should already conjecture that at least one more of my enemies will be one of his men, whose Servant he might steal away if something happens to his own, or whom he will use as a pawn until the final stages, when he can snatch victory away from them.

            But I can’t exactly go out and spy and gather information.
            It’s too cold, I don’t have warm clothes, and the enemy magi will have the sense to hide their prana and their Command Spells.
            If I were to go searching for Masters who have already contracted, I could sense them due to the slow leak of their magical energy, but I don’t yet have a Servant. Such a thing would be suicidal if they saw my own proof of a Command Spell.
            …It won’t take form until I make the contract, but there’s a dull red mark like a bruise or like blood flowing just underneath my skin running all along my left arm from shoulder to wrist.

            I will plan after the summoning.
            …There are risks and I certainly don’t like it, as it’s not the smartest way to go into a battle.
            But the last time I tried to be smart about things, they didn’t go my way anyway, so these risks will probably be necessary.

            Time continues to pass in the cold winter city.
            As it grows dark outside, I close the shutters to keep the faint light of the stove from alerting people to my presence just in case something should happen.
            There is no sound but the faint snapping of fire and the movement of the river outside.

            I take out my treasure.

            This grand spellbook, the Revelation, is a part of me and contains all the magical knowledge I have personally built up throughout my life.
            A modern magus would have to rely on his or her Magic Crest to tap into great magic, but this is the physical “record” of all my experiences.
            The channels for working many magics exist in my body, and the alterations performed by that man have only increased my potential.

            Here, on this most recent page of the book that has an infinite amount of them, is the diagram that I will use to summon my Servant.
            It’s enough that it’s recorded.
            I have to make sure now that it’s perfectly transcribed, because I’ll just be duplicating it from this book instead of drawing it freshly in the earth.

            It is almost time.
            I have sufficient energy.
            …And now I merely have to sleep.
            Inaction is safest, and sleep will pass the time the best.

            The further away I get from the stove, the colder it is.
            But I can bear it.
            This is the last day that I will be in this place alone, after all.

            I draw the blankets about my body and close my eyes.
            It is still a few hours until midnight.
            I will summon him tomorrow morning between five and six o’clock.

            —After what feels like an eternity of waiting, my last chance is about to arrive—