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Vagrant Grail Cadenza

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            He was born in one of the poorest slums of the country.
            It was a difficult age for his people, even as most other nations on the continent were flourishing.
            The government was unstable, as the imperial family was losing power while the nobles of the court and the military grew to be unruly.
            The divisions between rich and poor were severe in those days.

            …And in the midst of all of that, he was born.

            He has no memory of human warmth in that place.
            In his narrow world, there was only pain.

            His mother had left the family before he could form any memories of her at all, and he could never remember his father expressing love or kindness towards him in the least.
            In his faintest memories, his father had always been cold, and over time that passive coldness grew into active cruelty.
            He was still very small the first time he was beaten, and there was no part of his body that was not covered in cuts or bruises.
            He often went without being given food, and was made to sleep outside the house even in the brutal cold of winter.
            Often sickly and having to cobble together clothes and meals out of the refuse of his fellow poor, he was smaller and weaker than all the other children his age, and no matter how he tried to fight back it was useless.
            If he attempted to resist, he was still injured badly, and when the urge to resist was crushed out of his tiny body, the beatings would not end any earlier if he simply curled up and waited for them to cease.
            Repeatedly—he was told that he should never have been born.

            …I don’t know why, and I’m sure that if they were pressed to answer they would have dredged up flimsy excuses to hide behind.
            But the other adults in the area, who surely knew what was happening to such a young and sinless child in their community, did nothing.

            There were many other children in the slums.
            And he encountered them at play during the times that he was unable to go into the house where he lived.
            …They, who were ignorant to his suffering and knew nothing of the adults’ prejudice, would try to get him to play with them like any other child.

            But he had only ever known cruelty to come from human hands, and feared them.
            He would lash out in suspicion when approached, or would run.
            If cornered, he would fight with real desperation, enough to wound.
            Even if he had wished to do something different, he had never once known kindness.
            The only words he had learned were hurtful ones.
            …It was as if his body was made out of broken glass.
           He could only injure those who came close to him, and he was constantly on the verge of falling apart for good.

            The children learned to avoid him.
            …All except for one girl.

            Perhaps she was stubborn, or perhaps she just felt sorry for him.
            …But she continued to approach him long after all the other children had begun to shun him for his violence.
            She must have found out, at some point, the reasons behind his behavior.
            Over and over again, she appeared before him, trying to convince him to come and play with her.

            …Eventually.
            There was a time that he was so tired and weak, so hungry, in such despair that he allowed her to pull him away, to feed him and to show him for the first time that there was such a thing as a person whose hands would not hurt him.
            He couldn’t accept that truth so easily, of course.
            He remained suspicious for quite some time, shying away from her touch, doubting her smiles and certain that the food she brought him would be taken away.
            …But after months of the same, he slowly began to accept that her care for him might be genuine.

            …Finally, there was a place for him to run to when he was forced out of the house that he couldn’t see as a home.
            There was someone who would be careful of the ever-present bruises and cuts on his body.
            The tears that he thought had dried up long ago were finally allowed to fall.

            It wasn’t that the abuse had lessened.
            If anything, it continued to grow more severe.
            He couldn’t always hide with her, and as he grew, so did his father’s hatred.
            Several times he came close to receiving badly broken bones and wounds that couldn’t be treated, and the scars all over his body continued to increase in number.

            …It was just that…
            …for the first time in his life, he had someplace that was safe.

            As the girl who was his only friend showed him kindness, he learned to express it in turn.
            The children who had previously avoided him as a bully saw the change in him, and the eldest among them relaxed as they learned his circumstances.
            Another boy, who had been a friend of that girl, began to play with them as well.

            His body was still small and brittle.
            The whole of him bowed under the weight of his father’s unpredictable rages, and his heart was broken over and over again.
            He wasn’t old enough to fight back, and his only option was to try to soften the blows and not give his father the satisfaction of crying out no matter how painful it became.

            …But.
            He finally had a lifeline to allow him to survive.
            For the first time in his existence.
            He had “hope”—

 

            “—”
            …My head and my body feel like a jumbled mess as I wake.
            My eyelids are heavy and I can barely lift them.
            The weight on my body has increased, and my joints ache.
            And—there’s a pain in my chest that has nothing to do with my physical condition.

            …Something soft.
            There’s a gentle touch at my forehead.

            “—”

            Phantom memories fill my mind.
            The ghostly imprint of hands on my body, a thin blade running into my eye socket, hideous pain along my back that makes me want to scream.
            A driving and burning intrusion into the parts of my body that I would never allow anyone but one person.
            Pain and humiliation, the kind of fear that makes me want to push others away, curl up and cry—

            And layered on top of that.
            The heavy impact of fists and of objects like chairs and crockery thudding against bare skin.
            Angles painfully being driven into wounds that haven’t yet healed.
            Fingers knotting in my hair, pulling the weight of my entire body with that hand, the pain so intense that my entire scalp must be bleeding—

            No.
            No.
            I want to scream rejection, cry and throw up even though there’s nothing inside me to vomit out, hide in places where no one will ever come near me again.
            Because if I am hurt any more than this I will surely break.

 

            ……But.
            The hand on my forehead is so gentle that all the pain and the confused fear in my body washes away.

            “Ahh.”
            …Finally I am able to open my eyes.

            The distant roof that’s full of holes, a dull gray room that hasn’t been used as a room for years, and between me and that roof—
            A familiar figure.
            Deep scarlet hair faintly lit into a spectrum that extends into golds and violets by the early-morning sun.
            Gulcasa’s expression is filled with great worry.
            Gentle eyes that examine me carefully as if to weigh his words before he speaks.

            I reach up to touch his face vaguely, and my fingers rest on his cheek.
            Something in his gaze relaxes.

            “—Gulcasa.”
            What’s going on?
            …The last thing I can remember is chasing off Avenger’s Master, so—

            “You’re actually awake this time.”
            Gulcasa lets out an immense sigh as if relieved.
            His great chest rises and falls underneath the fabric of his fine clothes, so out of place in an old shack like this.
            “…You fainted after our battle last night, and I didn’t know what to do with you, so I brought you back here.
            “I’ve been watching over you since last night. You had a fever for a while and that’s gone, but you’ll probably still be a little groggy for a bit, so don’t push yourself.”

            The tone of his voice is low and very kind.
            …All the same, there’s a cautiousness in his eyes that betrays his emotions.
            Honestly.
            Gulcasa is far too open and easy to read.

            “—I made you worry.”
            I run my numb fingers awkwardly over the contours of his cheek in a clumsy apology.

            Gulcasa closes his eyes and sighs at me again.
            “You did.
            “—That’s why I’m not going to scold you even though you certainly bear fault in this incident as well, since you never take care of yourself properly.
            “Look at you, you didn’t even eat anything yesterday. It’s natural for you to faint after using up a lot of prana in that case.
            “But no matter how much I yell at you you’re not going to fix your bad habits, so I’m just going to have to take care of you instead.”

            Even as he says that, he doesn’t remove his hand from my forehead.
            It’s cold here and my whole body is still confused, but his hand is warm and feels good against my skin, like his touch is stabilizing me.

            Well, this is what I mean about his having a motherly personality.
            We have an unfortunate association in that regard, as my bad habits are legion and I’m always making him anxious.
            Gulcasa is a gentle person who can’t be at ease when those around him are suffering, even if that suffering is self-inflicted.
            …Especially in cases like that.
            I might be saved by his meticulous care, but at the same time, it can’t be good for him to always have to consider me all the time.

            I stare up at my Servant’s face in a daze.
            The sunlight streaming down from the gaps in the ceiling boards highlights the angles and planes of his face just as it illuminates his bright hair.
            It is clearly the beloved and familiar face of an adult, but this close to him, the image blends with the hazy images of the small child in my dreams.

            “—”
            That pain in my chest resonates again.
            I’m not sure of my ability to sit up, so I reach out and wrap my arms around Gulcasa’s shoulders and the back of his head and pull him towards me.
            He doesn’t resist and allows me to embrace him, though with his strength it should be easy to shake me off if he doesn’t want to be touched.

            “…I’m sorry.
            “I’m sorry that I’m always like this.”

            Maybe it’s the dreams, and maybe it’s my own weakness.
            …But I feel guiltier than usual, and I want to stop him from making that worried face.
            Gulcasa has felt enough pain on his own behalf.
            It’s probably better to worry about someone else than about yourself, but…

            “It’s all right.”
            He holds me carefully as if afraid of breaking me.
            The warmth of his body is soporific in this awful morning cold.
            “—Nessiah, I’m going to go outside for a little bit.
            “You haven’t eaten in over a day, so you shouldn’t try to make any sudden moves or you might faint again.
            “I know you wanted to go get food from the marketplace, but it might be too far away with you in this condition, so I’ll at least take care of breakfast.”

            He smoothes my hair out one last time and leaves with a smile.
            I let myself sigh as he disappears from sight.

            Either because of the cold or because there’s no energy left in my body, I feel very weak and it’s hard to get my senses back together.
            Prana is flowing out of my body and into Gulcasa’s to tether him to this world, so there is that too, but considering my normal levels of magical energy that’s not a problem.
            My chest is unnaturally heavy and there’s an ache inside me, lower than my stomach.
            I think that’s something that can’t be helped, though, as I extend that extra sense.
            …There seem to be seven seats filled by now, so we’re only waiting on one more person until the war begins.
            Undoubtedly, it’s going to be tougher to bear from now on, so I’ll just have to deal with it as best as I can.

            No, what I’m worried about is—
            “That dream.”

            …Well, I knew most of that already.
            What I haven’t heard about Gulcasa’s past from the person in question, I’ve heard from others or been able to guess myself.
            Seeing it like that is another matter.
            “—”
            When the connection between Master and Servant is healthy, their memories will flow into each other’s minds when they are asleep.
            Any nervousness I had about this process was about the reverse side of the equation.
            …Honestly, I don’t want to cause undue trouble to Gulcasa with my memories.

            “But this is hard in another way.”
            I say that aloud while spacing out.
            It’s probably just the freshness of that dream, but Gulcasa’s muscular silhouette seemed so fragile as he walked away.

            “—”
            ……As he walked away.
            Gulcasa is a Servant.
            He doesn’t know anything about this town, and furthermore his clothing will stick out unbelievably in this era.
            Even without his long hair and his great height, he just won’t fit into a place like this.
            Going into the city, he might even be found and attacked by another Servant and Master, and he’s not foolish enough to ignore that fact.
            So—what does he mean about going to get breakfast—?

            “…This is bad.”
            I sit up slowly, mindful of my dizzy head.
            Ahhh, it’s so cold.
            My limbs are barely responding to me the way that they should.

            Still, moving slowly, I’m able to stand and drag myself to the door, leaning on walls.

            …I’m not looking forward to the biting cold outdoors, but even so.
            I don’t know what Gulcasa thinks he’s doing, and I’ve got to act as his common sense, since he hasn’t got any—

            “—Oh.”
            “Huh, so you were able to get up.”

            The sight that greets me is, improbably, Gulcasa kneeling down before a shallow pit that looks hand-dug.
           Inside the pit are a series of sticks that must be driftwood, as the flames burning them are a somewhat odd hue.
            Around the makeshift fire pit are sticks stabbed into the ground, and each of them impales a small silver fish.

            “—”
            All I can do is stare blankly.
            The sky is only just brightening, so it still seems to be very early in the morning.
            At the very least, there are no people who could come and see Gulcasa wandering around outside like this.

            But I am honestly amazed at how quickly he’s come up with this, as I couldn’t have been spacing out inside for more than thirty minutes.

            “—Sorry.
            “It’s not very much, but I don’t know the way to the market yet and I don’t have what I need to shop there, so this is the best I can do.”
            …He says this as though ashamed while indicating the row of fish cooking over the open flames.

            “I give up.
            “It’s amazing that you’re even able to catch so many fish and cook them in such a short time, but you’re even modest about it. There’s not much I can say to that.”

            “Well, ordinary fish are no match for a Servant’s reflexes.”
            Gulcasa smiles for a moment as if he’s proud of himself, but then,
            “…Even so, I wish I could do better by you right now.
            “You’re depriving yourself of important nutrients, so you should be eating a larger and more balanced meal than just this.”
            The man whose hobby is cooking shakes his head at our situation as if he’s the one to blame for it and goes back to minding the fish.

            “—That’s not your fault.
            “Come on, we can shop later, so please just finish up breakfast for now.”
            “All right. These will be done in a few more minutes, and I’ll take care of everything, so go back inside or you’ll get cold.”

            I obey Gulcasa and get out of the wind.
            …How should I put it…
            He’s gentle, but he’s stubborn, so he can be surprisingly hard to deal with sometimes despite having that kind of personality.

 

            “Thank you for the food.”
            “Be careful and eat slowly. Your body is empty right now, so if you stuff yourself you’re going to get sick.”

            I nod to Gulcasa’s worrying and eat the smoked fish delicately.
            It is cooked to perfection so that the unadorned meat still tastes good, and it’s soft enough that it’s not distasteful to chew at.
            I can’t keep myself from sighing in happiness.
            Yes, the fish itself is less suitable for my body to eat than the materials available in my homeland.
            But anything Gulcasa cooks is perfect, elevated to the level of the food from my distant memories, and I’ve been spoiled by eating his food so that I can barely tolerate anything else.

            We eat very slowly.
            Gulcasa, who normally eats a lot to maintain his body, gives me the lion’s share and paces himself so that we get done eating at the same time.
            He’s a Servant, so his processes to get energy are a little different from a living being’s, but even so this is just another example of his great kindness.

            ……And, as we get further into the meal, the strength slowly comes back to my body.

            “Hah…”
            I manage to coax the sink to produce water and wash my hands.
            It really is a good thing that the plumbing here still works.

            “—Now then.”
            I look back into the room where Gulcasa is sitting, watching me and waiting for me to finish cleaning up.
            He stands out completely.
            The vivid colors of his clothes and hair are impossibly bright against the dull grays of the shack’s boards.
            But instead of seeming like an illusion himself, he actually feels like he’s the only part of this colorless scenery that’s real.

            “We weren’t able to do much yesterday, so now we have to decide on what we’re doing today to make up for that.”

            I go to sit down next to him while we speak.
            We’re close, but not touching.
            Still, his warm presence makes this much more bearable for me.

            “—You need real food, so we need to shop.”
            Gulcasa says so plainly as if he’s not taking no for an answer.
            …Well, I could complain, but he’s probably right.

            Still, the problems that I’m facing are definite ones.
            “…The only difficulty with that is money.
            “Honestly, I also want to get you some ordinary clothes as well to make things easier on us in the future when we’re patrolling.
            “But even though I’m underpaying the vendors as it is, we only have enough money for one thing—if I buy you clothes I won’t be able to eat, and if we prioritize food because I need that to keep functioning, we’d have to shoplift to get the clothes.”
            Neither choice is really the best one to make.
            And people are getting cheated no matter what I do.

            “—”
            Gulcasa closes his eyes.
            It’s not as though he’s making a difficult face as though he wants to argue, but I still feel a little bad for forcing this expression onto his face.

            When he opens his eyes again, he simply looks at me.
            “—What about our plans from today onwards in regard to the war?”

            “…Well.
            “Until we gather the information about where the other Servants will be based, our best bet will be to check the town bit by bit at night and fight whoever we come across.
            “One of our enemies will certainly be based at the church, but that’s an opponent that I don’t want to face directly if it’s in my power.
            “…If we’re fighting that man, we’ll need every advantage.”

            Gulcasa looks at me as if considering.
            “…Then.
            “If we go into the city today, we should pick up a map and plot a few courses through the city based on what’s most economical.
            “There aren’t many dark hours here, and we’ll run the risk of being seen otherwise.”

            “That’s very true.
            “—Well, I’d suggest that we look over the main city here and spend the rest of our time examining Miyama, as the enemy I’d rather avoid is in Shinto and will likely remain stationary.”

            Gulcasa doesn’t ask about that man, and we just go on planning at our leisure.
            Honestly, most pre-planned tactics fall apart once you actually meet the enemy, but it’s always good to have three or four generic strategies planned out beforehand just in case.
            Gulcasa has good combat instincts and even when he’s put at a disadvantage he’s able to fight with all his strength, so if we’re caught off guard he should be able to recover.
            But a good victory is one that you don’t have to struggle for.
            I don’t know if Gulcasa will have the same troubles as a Heroic Spirit that he had while he was alive, but I should keep his condition back then in mind as we plan for our attack here.

            “—And, Nessiah.”
            As we finish up, he calls my name and looks into my eyes intensely.

            “…Yes?”
            “Honestly, I can’t fully approve of stealing or cheating.
            “But this is the situation that we’re in.
            “—Look, money is something that can be paid back later. As long as we’re sure to pay it when this fight is over, I don’t mind so much if we take only what we need and no more.”

            “—”
            I stare at him, dumbfounded.
            This isn’t like Gulcasa as I remember him at all.
            …That idealistic boy hated anything resembling theft and likened thieves and bandits to parasites, calling them the lowest of the low.

            He shakes his head.
            “—I don’t like it.
            “But if it’s a wrong that can be corrected later, I’m willing to nod my head for now.
            “At that time, I was trying to cure the ills of my country, but my priorities are different right now. We don’t have to set an example for anyone, and this is for the sake of your well-being.”

            He says so seriously.
            …When being told that by someone with that face, I can’t argue.

            “—Only what we need, then.”

            If he only wears the clothes when we leave the house, we’d only need two outfits or so.
            The rest of the money can be divided up between the two weeks this war should take.
            …If I keep picking up loose change, then I’ll be able to perpetuate the illusion of our having enough money to pay for simple food and ingredients, and the change we get from the vendors in return will continue to help us.
            It is distasteful, but I don’t know what else we’re supposed to do.

            “…And I’m sorry.
            “Even if you’re agreeing under the circumstances, I know that this isn’t the kind of thing you approve of, so I don’t like making you comply.”

            …Even though I’m apologizing, Gulcasa just smiles.
            “—I’m happy enough that you’re saying that.”

 

            …The rest of the day goes on like that.
            We go into Shinto and straight to a department store.
            With Gulcasa in spiritual form, we pick up clothes until we can measure his size, and once he’s picked out things that he likes, I join him in the changing room to carefully disable the sensors and remove the tags.
            We leave together with Gulcasa materialized and wearing the clothes so that no one will be suspicious, return home to put the outfit away, and then repeat the process.

            …By that time I’m a little exhausted from listening for people who might find out what we were doing, and night has fallen.
            Shinto is busier at night than Miyama, and the various stores and booths are still open.
            Since we’ve left the second department store, Gulcasa is walking beside me, materialized.

            At first he seemed to be conscious of his clothing as he walked, but by now he appears to be fully used to his appearance.
            …Even with his height and the length of his hair, the only looks he attracts from passersby seem to be glances from people his own age, those who might find him good-looking.
            He looks like an ordinary young person from this era.
            Under the city lights, his modern clothes suit him well.

            “Oh.”
            Gulcasa stops suddenly while we walk.
            “…Is that place selling food?”

            He’s looking at a booth that sells ramen and other classic rice- and noodle-based bowl dishes with curiosity.
            Without giving me the chance to protest, he ventures over, and I follow him with a sigh.

            “—It looks cheap.”
            …That’s because it is cheap.
            It’s also not the most healthy thing to eat, but Gulcasa is already looking at me significantly, and I sigh.
            …I’m pushing him enough as it is, so if he really wants to try some inexpensive Japanese food, I may as well let him.

            “…I’ll pay for you if you want to try a bowl.
            “It’s not something that we want to make a habit of, but it might be too much of a pain to go back and worry about cooking now.”

            …He looks at me.
            “Well, that’s fine, but you’re getting one too.”
            “—Eh?
            “…It would be a waste.”

            Even though I try to protest, he crosses his arms at me.
            “—Nessiah, I don’t actually need to eat, but you do.
            “You’re still underweight, too, so no complaining. Even if it’s really salty and bad for you, we’re going to eat it and enjoy it.”

            …Sigh.
            There’s no reasoning with this person at all.
            If he really insists, then there’s no point arguing with him as he’ll have his way in the end.
            And it seems as though it would end up as my loss if I were to use the argument that I can only eat food he makes anyhow.

            “……If that’s really what you want.
            “But—only this once.”

            And that is how we come to be sitting at a ramen booth with half the seats already full.
            The bowls are large and are filled with various vegetables and meat along with the noodles.
            …Even though I ordered a small portion, it’s turned out like this.
            Well, it’s not Gulcasa’s cooking, so you could say I’m already biased against it.
            Still, we did spend money, so I have to eat as much of it as possible.

            Beside me.
            Gulcasa is enjoying himself loudly over the utensils he’s not familiar with, and I have to demonstrate the use of chopsticks to him twice before he actually grasps how to manipulate them properly.
            …The broth is very salty and the pork floating amidst the noodles is rather fatty, so that I have to pick it apart with my chopsticks before I’m able to eat the lean sections.
            Still, there’s a variety of vegetables, so I’ll at least call it a victory in that I’ll be getting important vitamins.
            …I suppose.

            “—How is this made?”
            And.
            Gulcasa is striking up a conversation with the vendor cheerfully.
            At first the man across the counter from us seems taken aback at being addressed by this stranger with his eye-catching red hair and clothes, but it doesn’t take long before they are earnestly discussing ingredients and cooking strategies.
            …I don’t want Gulcasa to think I’m smiling over the flavor of these overly salty noodles, so I hide my expression behind the bowl.

            I close my eyes for a moment and pay my respects to the girl who has long been gone from this world.
            The dreams are still fresh in my mind, and the comparison of my Gulcasa right now to the way that he used to be as a small child is profound.
            …This personable man beside me, able to speak to and befriend almost anyone—
            Perhaps this simple reality is the greatest miracle of them all.

            We leave after tipping the vendor.
            It’s still quite cold out, but my body is warm.
            …If nothing else, that’s something that can be said for the salty bowl of ramen.

            “—Now I’m interested in this country’s cooking.”
            Even as we leave the more populated areas, Gulcasa seems to be having fun.

            “Well, hopefully we’ll have the chance to let you learn more about it.”
            That would be to everyone’s benefit.
            He could do something to enjoy himself, and I’ll be able to eat Japanese food without natural hesitation at the quality of the cooking.

            We cross the bridge hand in hand.
            Now that there aren’t any annoying Masters running about in the park, Miyama is very quiet at this hour, and there’s time to explore the place carefully.
            Honestly, even though we both checked the map we picked up, I’m relying on Gulcasa’s sense of direction and my own knowledge of the town’s layout about equally.
            If I don’t think about where we’re going and where we’ve been, I’ll get lost.

            The wind blows.
            In this empty town, even just the wind blowing makes a noise like a lonely beast howling.

            “—There’s not much human presence here.”
            Gulcasa isn’t smiling anymore.
            Even in his modern clothes, he carries the same alert presence that he always does on the battlefield, and I know he’s straining his senses to detect possible enemies.

            “I suppose there wouldn’t be.
            “…In the previous Grail War, there were apparently high numbers of civilian casualties due to an irregularity.”
            …Beyond that it was the second and final Heaven’s Fall, I don’t know many of the details.
            But that quiet and creeping shadow killed many civilians in Miyama, and even five full years later, Fuyuki cannot recover from such a loss so easily.

            This side of the town is largely residential.
            There are beautiful Western-style houses along one side up to the top of the hill, and there are traditional Japanese-style houses across the other.
            The roads are a dividing line.
            The house at the top of the Western hill is probably the home of a magus.
            …I think the actual Second Owner isn’t in the city now, but until it’s time for the Grail to appear we may want to give the place a wide berth just in case.
            Well, it’s built on the ley line and is a fertile ground for magic, so in any case it would be odd for the land not to have a magus living there.
            The large Japanese-style mansion on the Japanese-style hill also carries a dim presence of power.
            It’s a more open air than the opposing hill.
            Welcoming, almost.
            I’m a little curious about who actually lives in a place like that, but now isn’t the time.
            I can always investigate it if we survive this war.

            …And finally, to the other side of the town—there’s the great temple beneath which the first and fifth wars ended.
            Even looking at that place, my body feels heavier than usual.
            “—”
            Sigh.
            My breath is white on the air.
            Ryudou Temple is a place that will reject the presence of magic, so in any case we shouldn’t go there now either.

            “—Ouch.”
            There’s a sudden, sharp discomfort in my shoulder.

            “…Nessiah?”
            Gulcasa has stopped and is looking down at me.
            “—”
            I press my hand to the place where it hurts, but the discomfort is simply growing stronger.

            …This may be the Command Spell reacting.
            As soon as I think so, Gulcasa looks up and stares down the road.
            His eyes are the eyes of a commander on alert for the appearance of the enemy.

            “—Stay behind me.”
            He sinks into a ready stance.
            His hips lower and his body shimmers so that he is covered in his finery and then his armor.
            The scythe that is his Noble Phantasm appears in his hand.

            …Well, he doesn’t need to tell me that.
            The only presence of an enemy is from before us.
            I can vaguely sense the Servant, and the discomfort that heralds the presence of the Master is getting stronger.
            But there’s nothing as of yet coming from behind us or either side.
            I should keep my senses open to the road in case enemies appear from there or in case we have to retreat.

 

            At my first sight of the Servant that appears around the bend.
            —My breath stops.

            “—”
            Gulcasa lets out a hiss of breath.
            Where his form was tense and cautious before, he stands straight now with a bestial intent to kill raging out of control.

            —I remember.
            Out of my control, I remember an intense raw pain in my chest and stomach and the metallic taste of blood coughed up from my lungs.
            My vision fades for a moment, but as I grit my teeth and put strength into my legs, my senses lose their faintness and my dizziness drains away.

            “—You.”
            The girl in white says this.
            The girl in white speaks out in the same shock and revulsion I can feel emanating from Gulcasa’s body, and points her sword at us.

 

                        That she would—be Saber.

            Whose bad idea of a joke is this?

            “…Saber?”
            And.
            There’s a magus behind her.
            He must be her Master.

            That man has a decent amount of magical energy.
            Like Avenger’s Master from last night, he is indeed powerful, but not at my own level.
            He’s a young adult, probably in his early twenties, and wearing fine clothing.
            From his looks, he’s not Japanese, so he probably came to this country to participate in the war—and judging from his presence of prana, he may be from a great family.
            In fact, I feel as though I recognize him vaguely—as though I’ve seen someone who looks much like him in the past.
            …Well, if he’s a descendant of some kind, then there’s no helping that.

            Still, I’ll be able to overpower him if it comes down to a battle between us.
            Of that, I’m certain.

            “—”
           Gulcasa and the girl who was summoned as Saber glare at each other, their murderous intent clashing like steel.
            …Gulcasa needs his reasoning in this battle if he can make use of it.
            I’m the stronger Master.
            So even given Saber’s identity, Gulcasa’s powers should exceed hers.

            But statistics alone can’t win a battle.
            Every seat has been claimed by now, so we must quickly decide this.

            I’ll kill him before that girl is able to make any difference at all—

            I switch on my self as a magus immediately and draw in the necessary mana.
            As if that was the signal, Gulcasa lunges forward with enough strength to crack the pavement he was standing on, and Saber hurls herself at him as well.
            Their weapons crash loudly enough to make my ears hurt.

            “—!!”
            I stretch my hands and gesture with all my power.

            “Ah—”
            The enemy magus reacts sluggishly, throwing his body backwards and flinging up a shield.
            The faint bubble of prana that protects him is easily torn apart by the lightning I have called down from the cloudless sky.

            “Roswell—!”
            Saber shouts.

            “Idiot, don’t take your eyes off me!!”
            Gulcasa snarls at her.
            The deep hatred in his voice is truly like a roar beginning to rise from the lungs of a great dragon, and the sound reverberates around the cold dead neighborhood.

            “Ah—”
            From the corner of my vision, I see the bright red and silver flash as the blade of his scythe goes straight for her momentarily unprotected torso.
            The movement is almost too fast for my eyes to track.
            The unarmored girl holds up the giant sword in her hands to block it, but the force of Gulcasa’s blow sends her sliding backwards.

            Still, she lunges for him, and breaks the tide of his charge with her own heavy blow.
            If he is a raging wildfire, then she is the wind strong enough even to cut through the flames without harm.
            Sparks ring off of their weapons and off of Gulcasa’s armor.
            Saber continually strikes at his body, but the sheath of heavy steel wrapped around him dispels her blows even if she can make it through his guard.

            He’s taller and carrying a less unwieldy weapon.
            And in terms of strength, his is superior by a narrow margin.
            …Still.
            This has to end before Noble Phantasms are brought into the equation—

            “—Hah—!!”
            I bring my power to bear against Saber’s Master, the man called Roswell.

            “!!!”
            He flings up shield after shield, each stronger than the last, as if he’s dancing.

            “—Tch.”
            Faster.
            I have to end this faster.

            Before their rage so overtakes them that they forget where they are—
            I’m not such a fool of a Master to let Gulcasa burn himself out with “that” trump card so quickly—!!

            The enemy Master calls out in a deep calm voice.
            Extending both his hands, he speaks in a language that I’m not very familiar with.
            I think it’s probably French.
            From the words I can understand, he calls for shadows of binding.

            “—”
            But that won’t work.
            I gather light into my hands and kick the ground.
            Water.
            I gild my path forward with a thin, glowing sheet of water and fling myself forward with all my might—!!

            “Ah—!”
            Maybe it’s that I am literally walking on a bridge made of water, or maybe that I’ve thwarted his attack so easily, but the enemy Master’s face goes pale with anger and he swings the black power he was sending through the asphalt at my face.

            “Ei—”
            The Revelation snaps shut at a simple touch with my mind, and I grab it by the lower corner.
            I sink my nails into the leather and conform my palm to the thick spine, and swing the heavy spellbook—!!

            “—!!”
            He must not have been expecting a physical blow, as the enemy shields himself clumsily and is blown back several meters, sinking to one knee for a moment.

            My “bridge” cascades to the ground, and I hold out my hands palms up at the level of my waist, putting strength into my lower legs so that I can move again at any time.
            My spellbook snaps back open and a flurry of pages rotate around my body as if sent into orbit by a cyclone wind.

            He’s strong and at least a little bit clever, but my capacity for prana is much greater than his.
            If I can burn him out all at once, then this battle will end.
            From here on, all I have to do is keep pressing the attack—!!

            “Tah—!”

            But.
            A clear shout like the clang of a high-pitched bell.

            I remember.
            …My body remembers that pain.

            I swing myself around and raise the Revelation, clumsily shoving prana into it as my shield—

            There’s a heavy impact all across my body as if I’ve been rammed into by a car—

            My feet almost leave the ground, and as it is my toes trail across the asphalt for a split second before my back slams heavily into the dividing concrete wall that cuts the terrain in two for the road.

            “Kh, ah—”
            I can taste blood dimly and my head is thick and dizzy.
            The Revelation isn’t damaged from that blow.
            It’s a far older wonder than even that girl’s Noble Phantasm, and it would take more than that to really do it harm.

            My own body, unfortunately, is a different matter.
            My joints ache and my back feels pummeled.
            My body trembles from the shock of the impact.
            Nothing is broken, it just hurts.

            My vision is hazed with white, and even though I try to stand upright—
            “Ah…”
            …For some reason, my legs lack strength.
            I can’t hold myself up.

            “Ah, eh…?”
            A bewildered voice comes out on its own.
            I try again to stand, but my body just won’t hold.
            My legs can’t take my weight and I stumble, knees hitting the pavement.

 

            “—You will not touch him.”

            Gulcasa’s voice is cold with rage.

            “I’ll return those words to you.
            “—I will not allow anyone to endanger my Master.”
            The girl’s voice is valiant in the dark night.
            “…Saber.”
            And, from further away, her Master Roswell’s voice is frail.

            “Don’t expect things to go the way they did before, Princess.
            “—The situation has changed considerably since then.”

            I blink.
            Gulcasa is standing between me and our enemies.
            His body has sunk into a low stance and is braced.
            In this position, he could either attack or defend.

            “—”
            The girl—Saber holds that large sword at the ready.
            …Ugh.
            At this rate, the battle will only grow more intense.
            If she is willing to use her Noble Phantasm here—
            The problem is that I can’t move.
            Gulcasa is shielding me, but the only way he can stop her Noble Phantasm is by attacking with equal force.
            …At least, I have to get out of the way.

            But I have a wall to my back.
            And there is no power left in my body.
            …I could cast magic from here, I suppose, but all of my instant combat spells won’t be able to move me to a safe place.
            I try again to regain my feet, but there’s nothing I can do.
            It’s embarrassing that I should be disabled by this tiny degree of pain, but perhaps because of my condition already, I seriously can’t even move.

            The man standing as if to guard me and the girl who aims to attack us both rush forward.
            They clash.

            …And in that great explosion of steel.
            Gulcasa turns away at the last moment and strikes the ground instead of Saber, causing a vast explosion of dust that engulfs the entire area.

            I lose my vision as everything is enveloped in gray.
            All I can hear is Saber’s shout of annoyance as her attack goes wide and Roswell’s coughing.
            I try to shield my face, and then in that moment—

            Gulcasa appears out of the dust and bends down to pick me up.
            His armor is gone, and he stands in the plain clothes we just got for him.
            In silence, he lifts me and the spellbook in my arms to hold me tightly against his chest.

            “—Don’t try to talk, you’ll bite your tongue.”
            He whispers that to me.
            And without any more warning than that, we are rocketing away from that place at a speed that forces me to close my eyes.

 

            “—”
            …When we’ve stopped.
            When I open my eyes, we’re back here.
            Gulcasa doesn’t try to set me down outside, but carries me straight into the shack.
            The room is lit only by the moonlight filtering through the gaps in the ceiling.

            “—Gulcasa.”
            I’m not even sure what’s just happened.
            My Servant sets me down at last in the pile of blankets and old mattress that’s been used as my bed, and kneels down in front of me.

            “Are you all right?”
            “—”
            I actually have to think about it before I can answer.
            …I’ll try to ignore what that might say about me.
            “It hurts, but it’s not so terribly bad. Nothing’s broken, anyhow.
            “—I just don’t have much energy.”

            It’s like he’s deflating.
            Gulcasa sighs very heavily and then puts his hands on my shoulders.
            His palms are careful despite the rough texture.
            “…You really are stupid.
            “Look, Nessiah—this is what happens when you don’t eat.
            “There’s no way we could fight well with you in that condition.
            “Can you reinforce the boundary field from here?”

            “—Yes. That won’t be a problem.”

            …Gulcasa is too relaxed for us to have been followed, and I can’t sense our enemies either, but nothing is wrong with being cautious.
            I close my eyes and put more power into the boundary field, so that no one will even be able to enter it at all.

            “—All right, it’s done.”
            “Good. You should lie down and get your rest now, your body’s had quite a shock even if you don’t have any serious injuries.”
            Even though it’s hard to hold myself up, I hesitate.
            It’s—so cold.

            “Nessiah.”
            Gulcasa is looking at me like I’m an unmanageable kid.
            It hurts my arms, but I reach out and grasp his shirt.
            “…What?”
            “It’s too cold, I can’t sleep here.
            “…I know that I need rest, but I won’t be able to get any that’s really restful with this place in this temperature.”

            Gulcasa looks at me for a moment, and then unwinds my hands from his clothes carefully.
            “Wait a moment.”
            His long hair sways as he stands.
            My Servant kneels in front of the gas stove, which lights up the first time he tries it, a feat I’m never able to accomplish.

            “—The heat’s still going to escape since the walls aren’t insulated, but this at least should be better, right?
            “I’ll pull this stuff closer so that you’ll be nearer to the warm, and I’ll be beside you the whole time, so don’t worry.”

            “…You should lie down too even if you’re not going to sleep.”
            I complain as Gulcasa pulls at the mass of fabric beneath me, dragging it towards the stove so that there’s only about a meter between it and me.
            “There we go.”
            Gulcasa stands up, looking about the place with a practical air.

            “……Damn. I hadn’t thought that we would have to deal with her again, especially in a place like this—”
            He runs both hands through his hair and sighs.
            It’s hurting my back and neck even more to look up at him.

            …And since there’s nothing we can do about Saber right now, he won’t gain anything from stressing out over her.
            “Gulcasa.”

            He looks down at me, hands still in his hair.
            “—Since it seems as though I can’t simply expect you to grasp my meaning.
           “Even this is unhealthily cold for me, and I’ll have trouble getting to sleep now that it’s the middle of the night.
            “Lie down with me. I want you to hold me.”

            He doesn’t reply.
            Gulcasa simply stares down at me with a nonplussed expression.

            “—”
            And then he steps over the wreck of a mattress and sits down.
            “I don’t think you’re really in the condition for that sort of thing.”

            “…Hush, you know that’s not what I mean.”
            All the same.
            Gulcasa lays his hands on my waist and gently brings me down to rest against the blankets.
            The fabric is thin, ragged, and uncomfortable.
            But Gulcasa lowers his body beside mine and wraps his arm lightly over my waist.

            “Then you should have said so from the beginning.”
            His words are too gentle to be scolding, and I ignore them.
            My back is aching, my legs are numb from the cold, and my arms still hurt.
            But I roll over and bury my face in his chest so that I can breathe in the scent of him.
            My eyes close as he holds me.

            …My body is still trembling vaguely from the shock.
            But because Gulcasa’s warmth will melt even that away in time, I’m able to relax just a bit—