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Vagrant Grail Cadenza

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            The days went on.
            And as they did, their numbers slowly increased.
            New soldiers continued to drift into the landgrave’s care, and beyond that, the young captain was sent multiple times on missions to go recruit new commanders.
            —And, on the occasions when he was sent out to maintain public order, every now and then he would encounter people who would join his cause completely on their own.
            An accomplished witch with knowledge of ballistics, a great beast that served as a magician’s familiar, an Undine captured by humans and taken far from her ocean home, a former sneak thief who only targeted the rich.

            It was like a spiral that continued to widen on and on outward.
            He saved towns and protected them from bandits and thieves.
            He crossed blades with various different opponents, pushed outwards and still further outwards on the orders of the landgrave, supported by the presence of his allies at his back.
            And, in doing so, he began to better understand the shape of the world around him.

            Injustice.
            It was a many-headed beast, and powerful, but surely it couldn’t be impossible to defeat.
            Slowly, bit by bit, he was chipping away at its reach.
            With every battle that he and his men won, that was another corrupt noble discouraged, another group of bandits dead and unable to steal from the weak, another rogue military squad that couldn’t terrorize entire towns. It wasn’t so much that he believed that they were winning, not yet; after all, there were still as many evildoers in the world as stars in the sky.
            The thing was that as long as their string of modest successes continued, he could feel as though some sort of progress was nonetheless being made.

            And.
            As the fight continued, life at the barracks became noisy and warm.
            ……It was a strange feeling.
            There were soldiers around who would salute him and call out to him and come ask him for help, and then there were the other commanders, who were his friends and who would while away the hours with him.
            The familiar and the Undine would share their stories of distant lands and keep him company, and the traveling warrior would teach him many things about logistics and about people.
            The former thief would help to lend him the perspectives of the various civilians in different areas of the empire, and together they would also discuss the effects of different kinds of oppression on the people.
            The witch was eccentric, but she wasn’t as hard to get along with as she had seemed at first, and her sharp eyes allowed her to notice more things about his mood than most other people did; in her own awkward sort of way, she was very kind.
            The twin girls he had saved were a little on the shy side when he was around, but he knew that he always had their support, and it was surprisingly rewarding to get to know more about them.
            …And.
            Throughout all of it, the boy and the girl who had always been at his side still followed him.

            It was bewildering.
            …Yes.
            Aside from coping with the sudden abundance of life’s necessities where all his life he had struggled to get by without regular food and shelter and the sense that no matter how small it might be he had certainly gained some of the power necessary to help others—here there was also the warmth of other people.
            Immediate and enveloping.
            Soft, and comforting, and always there.
            …Even though the people of the poor district had supported his tiny vigilante band, they had never been able to stay in any place for very long for fear of causing too much of a strain.
            But here and now—there was a sense that if nothing else, this warmth and these bonds would carry on forever.

            Their missions continued.
            Slowly, they began to restore order in a few towns, and came across a few factions of misguided rebels who were definitely causing more trouble for the citizens than for the government.
            It was still difficult to deal with his employer.
            The landgrave was as severe as he had thought, and every time he was shown how little he was trusted by the man, it hurt as much as being gouged with something bladed.
            …But even the landgrave, who was so private and guarded—the young captain felt as though he was slowly learning more about even that man.

            And the days went on.
            Slowly, gradually, their power continued to increase.
            Like water being coaxed to the boiling point over a series of hours.
            …He would look back on it and remember the taste of premonition in the air for what it was, see the thunderheads building in a way that he had not been able at the time.
            But even so.
            …Yes, even now, he would surely think the same.

            That those days had surely been blessed—

 

            “—”
            I can feel the light on the back of my eyes.
            …It’s morning.
            I can tell that much.

            We didn’t get back until late, as expected.
            By the time that we returned from the next town over, I was so cold that I was already about to shut off mentally, and my memories of Gulcasa bringing me back to the shack and settling me in are very vague.
            …The feeling of the air isn’t such that it’s very cold, but I still feel cold.

            “—Ugh.”
            From the quality and direction of the light, it seems that it’s already late morning.
            My head is filled with fog and my body hurts.
            A dull, throbbing pain.
            “Ugh, ngh.”
            It’s harder to move than usual and my body aches.
            My bones feel heavy, and especially the space nested in my pelvis feels solid.

            I breathe out.
            I concentrate on the morning light and breathe out.

            “…Nessiah, are you awake?”
            At the sound of that voice, I open my eyes and stare at Gulcasa’s hazy silhouette.
            He’s sitting beside me, looking down at me from above.
            …Actually.
            I think my head and shoulders are rested on his lap.
            As I wonder with a blank mind just how it wound up like this, he touches my forehead softly and lets out a sigh.

            “…Well, at least it looks like your fever’s gone almost all the way down.”
            My vision clears slightly.
            …Fever?
            Then I suppose my body must have had another reaction, the way that it did when the unknown Servant was defeated two nights ago.
            Conveniently, it appears that I’ve slept through the worst of it.
            Hopefully, our timing will continue to align like this for as much of the war as we can manage, so that’s good.

            “Apparently I’ve inconvenienced you a bit.”
            “Oh, so you are awake.”
            Gulcasa sighs heavily.
            “…You opened your eyes a few times before, but you didn’t seem to be in the kind of shape to be able to tell where we are or what was happening.
            “—I’m glad you’re actually awake this time.”

            …It takes effort, but I push myself up, not wanting to lose to the weight inside me.
            My body feels crowded.
            …If it’s this bad now, it’s going to become unbearable in the future, so I at least don’t want to give up just yet.
            …I’m not going to lose to my own physical condition or power level or anything. I never have and I don’t want to make a habit of it yet.

            “Nessiah, you shouldn’t get up so suddenly.”
            Beside me, my Servant hovers worriedly.

            “—I’m all right.”
            I smile to reassure him, but he doesn’t seem convinced.
            “It’s already subsided to the point where it’s manageable, and so the aftereffects should vanish soon, just like yesterday morning. I’m going to be just fine, Gulcasa.”
            “…Even if you say that, I can’t help but worry.
            “I told you before, I know better than to trust you when it comes to matters of your own health, so I’m not convinced.”
            Gulcasa crosses his arms and sulks.
            “—Well.
            “I could say the same of you, but that would just get us nowhere, so let’s cut this argument off before it gets started.
            “There are a lot of things to think about, after all.”

            Gulcasa just shakes his head at me and gets cold water for me to drink.
            That helps to clear my head, and then I get some warmer water in order to wash the sweat off of my shoulders and chest, which clears my head even more and helps me to feel better.
            Even though he’s clearly still angry, Gulcasa volunteers to wipe my back down, and so I let him, closing my eyes.
            His hands are heavy with calluses, but so gentle that they feel as if they’re made of velvet.
            I could stay here for hours, just feeling him touch me, close to his warmth.

            “…That’s two Servants that have been defeated.
            “And, we know that there’s an extra Servant because of the two Riders.
            “By my count that’s nine, and so also taking you out of the equation, we have six enemies remaining.”
            Gulcasa frowns slightly at my assessment.
            “—Why nine?”
            “There were always going to be eight Servants summoned in this war, and so summoning two Servants to one class just means that it’s now nine.
            “There was a great overabundance of prana left over in the Grand Grail after all the events of the past two Holy Grail Wars. I don’t know all the details, but that’s definitely the case.
            “And I was able to sense that there was something odd about one of the summonings, so now that we know the answer that two Riders were summoned, I’m not actually that surprised.
            “—Anyhow, that’s the situation.
            “There are many opponents, and we don’t even know which two Servants were defeated.
            “We’ve personally seen Avenger and the two Riders, and Saber is probably still alive.
            “We don’t have enough information. We need to continue patrolling.”

            Gulcasa bites his lip and looks at the ground.
            “—Nessiah, you know I’d rather we not take risks.”

            “Right.
            “But strategically, we don’t have a very strong foothold.
            “If we don’t know more, then when the enemy finally comes to us then we’ll be at an extreme disadvantage, you know.”
            Gulcasa is still making a face as though he wants to protest.
            “…I don’t have the energy to argue right now, especially when you know that I’m right.
            “I would hate to use one of my unconditional demands for obedience on something as trivial as this, but I feel strongly enough about our direction that I will if I have to.”

            Gulcasa bows his head.
            …The tension in his shoulders is sharp and quivers with a sense of frustration.
            “…Then.
            “I’ll do as you say, because I’m not so disobedient a Servant that I need your command.
            “—And I wouldn’t forgive you if you did that to me.”

            …I know.
            That’s why I’d rather his actions come from his own will, even if under duress.
            He can make the decisions for himself, but I can’t make them for him.
            And if I force him, I’ll only hurt him.
            That’s Gulcasa’s pride.

            “—I’m sorry.
            “I can’t listen to you, though.”
            Gulcasa sighs yet again.
            “I know, you stubborn bastard.
            “At least let me cook you a good healthy meal before we have to go charging out.”

            “—”
            …How can I put this…
            It’s something of a relief to know that this is how he’s going to react, even if he doesn’t agree with what I want to do.

            My body still feels shaky, but I just press my forehead against Gulcasa’s arm and breathe out.
            …I’ll have him forgive me later.

 

            And so, for the third day running, we are on our way to the marketplace.
            “—”
            “—Nessiah, you don’t have to push yourself if you’re still too tired to really do anything.
            “Um, you didn’t sleep very well last night, remember?”

            “No.
            “—I’ll handle it, so be quiet and just lead the way, all right?
            “It’s nothing that you should have to worry about, you’ve got to concentrate on what you’re doing and what you’re going to be cooking.
            “So stop fussing about my condition and think about the task at hand.”

            “…But, Nessiah.”
            “Look, I said I’m all right, so can you just keep walking?
            “Because I—”

            But Gulcasa doesn’t keep walking.
            He stands still and watches me with a concerned and irritated expression.

            …And, without being able to use forward momentum and keep moving…,
            I am unable to support my weight and my legs begin to buckle.

            “Nessiah—”
            Gulcasa catches me easily and supports me, setting me down on the closest bench.
            I lean back and stare at the blue midday sky, trying hard to breathe.

            “—This is why I said we should just keep moving.”
            Breathlessly, I complain.
            Gulcasa does not answer; he simply stares at me reproachfully.
            …Yes.
            To put it very simply, the aftereffects have not yet died down, and activity actually seems to be aggravating them.
            My body is hot and uncomfortable, and my legs are uncooperative, and it’s very difficult to focus my sight.
            And now that I’m not walking, I don’t know how easily I can move.

            “—This is a problem.
            “I guess I’ll just have to take you back.”
            Gulcasa, standing upright, folds his arms and worries while towering over me.

            “Hey, don’t say foolish things.
            “If you’re all alone in the marketplace without me watching you, I won’t be able to relax.
            “You’re cute, so someone might walk off with you.”
            “—Very funny.”
            Gulcasa touches my forehead as if oblivious to the fact that I’m serious, and shakes his head.
            “Your fever is going back up.
            “Look, if we’re making food anyway then we need to make something that’s got meat in it, so I do need to shop, but you’re going home no matter what.”
            “Yes, I am indeed going home. I’m going home with you when we’re done shopping, and then I’m resting until this evening.
            “—If you’d like to fight about it then that’s fine, but I’ll win.”
            “Idiot.
            “Even if you order me, it’s not going to help you if you can’t move, and it’s going to be hard to shop if I have to carry you at the same time.”
            …Hmm, well, that’s fairly difficult to argue with.

            “—Um, excuse me—”

            And.
            We are interrupted by an unfamiliar voice.

            A young woman stands on the sidewalk behind Gulcasa.
            She’s of course much smaller than him in stature, but she appears to be about the same age as he is physically.
            She is clearly a native Japanese, but curiously her long hair is a vibrant plum shade, and her eyes are the same color.
            Her hair and warm winter clothes sway softly in the breeze, which buffets the pink ribbon in her hair with a kind of playfulness.
            There is an expression of concern on her face as she looks at us.

            “—I’m sorry for being so intrusive, but are you all right?”

            …And.
            I can sense a great wellspring of power in this girl.

            “—Eh?”
            Gulcasa looks at her blankly.
            Apparently he didn’t realize that the sight of him scolding me as I lie here on the bench might attract attention from passersby.
            …Although, I do have to admit that I certainly didn’t expect to be called out to, either.

            “It’s just that—um, your friend doesn’t look well, so…”
            She fidgets slightly, but she still appears to be more concerned than uncomfortable.

            Gulcasa sighs and turns to face her directly.
            “—Well, unfortunately, he’s not.
            “We were going out to try to shop so that we could make dinner tonight, but I think he’s just going to make his condition worse if he keeps going.
            “—Um, but the thing is that he’s stubborn and doesn’t want to let me take him back to rest while I go buy things. We’re—well. I hate to admit it, but we’re kind of in a bad situation monetarily speaking, so I can understand his feelings of wanting to be around when money is getting spent.
            “But all the same, there’s no meaning if this just winds up making him feel worse.
            “So—well, so we were arguing.
            “…I’m sorry that we wound up disturbing your walk.”
            He bows his head.

            “It’s all right.”
            But the girl just gives him a troubled smile and shakes her head.
            “Would you like me to get an ambulance?
            “If your friend is really ill…”

            “—That’s all right.”
            I had better interrupt this right now before Gulcasa gets any ideas.
            “We wouldn’t be able to pay for serious medical treatment at any rate, and my condition isn’t so serious that money can be worried about later.”

            The girl clasps her hands at her waist and looks at both of us solemnly.
            She stares at us with eyes that seem to understand more than we’ve actually told her.

            “…And if you don’t even know what the sickness is, then I guess it’s useless to spend money on medicine too, isn’t it?
            “But I think that maybe you could look into something basic like cold medicine. Um, it might at least make the symptoms die down, even though this is something that doctors wouldn’t be able to fix.”
            She smiles.
            She smiles at me sadly.
            “Please, take care.
            “Your friend is right; there’s nothing to be gained from pushing yourself too hard and making your condition even worse than it already is.
            “Especially considering that if you’re really ill, it’s probably going to get a lot worse before it gets any better.”

            Her words.
            …They fall into my heart like stones cast into a well, and I can’t pretend not to hear them.
            How can her words, the words of someone who shouldn’t know anything about what’s wrong with me, have such a powerful effect?
            I don’t understand it, unless—

            “—Here.”
            She takes out a wallet from her pocket, opens it, and takes out all the folded bills inside without pausing to look at them.
            And she offers all the money she’s carrying on her person to Gulcasa.
            “There’s not much that I can do, but please at least buy some high-quality ingredients and be sure to pick up some cold medicine.
            “…This should be enough to take care of basic funds for meals and such for another two weeks, so please use it without holding back.”

            …Gulcasa simply stares at her, dumbfounded.
            Honestly, I can’t believe it either.

            “—I can’t take this.”
            At last, Gulcasa says so with a troubled expression, but the girl ignores him and takes his hand, placing the bills in his palm and folding his fingers around them.
            She holds his hand in both of hers as if to prevent him from letting go.
            …And all the while, she smiles cheerfully.

            “No, I insist.
            “We have plenty of money, so even if I give you this there’s no problem.
            “—I’m sure that Sempai would do just the same if he were here.”
            This seems to be enough for her, even though it’s difficult to understand from my perspective in various ways.
            “And, also…
            “Sempai would probably want me to tell you this as well.
            “—If you’re ever in real trouble and need help, then by all means please come to us.
            “We live in the Japanese-style building at the top of the hill, and our doors are always open to anyone in need of aid.
            “Um, because we believe in saving people if it’s in our power to do so.”

            And while Gulcasa and I are still staring at her, she steps back and bows.
            “Please take care of yourselves.
            “Sicknesses like these don’t usually last for much longer than two weeks, so please do your best and bear it until it’s over.”

            …She bows again, and then walks away.

            “—”
            “—”
            And so we’re left staring like that.
            Gulcasa holding the money, and me still unable to move very much.
            …Just who was she?
            She spoke as if with knowledge of what’s happening, even though that shouldn’t be possible, and handed us a wad of cash altruistically before disappearing.

            Gulcasa breathes out as if making up his mind.
            “…All right.
            “I’m taking you back home.
            “—Just like she said, it might be worth trying to get some cold medicine, and this does look as if it’s enough to cover the expenses of the rest of the war.
            “If you’re going to insist that we have to go back out later, then you have got to rest.”

            …Even if it’s depending on the charity of others, Gulcasa seems energized by the prospect of not having to be deceitful in our expenditures anymore.
            I don’t try to argue as after all this does solve quite a few of our problems, and he goes ahead and puts the money in the pocket of his pants.
            “—Here.”
            He lifts me up into his arms with care.
            “Close your eyes, I’m going to run you back.”

 

            …And so.
            I am deposited safely back at the shack, set down upon the pile of blankets that serves as my bedding, and Gulcasa leaves again after stroking my hair once.
            …There’s nothing to do but doze and think, and no real need to get up and fidget because this is the warmest spot in the building and it definitely does hurt to move.

            My mind is hazy, and my body is heavy, overly crowded.
            …At this rate.
            I know I’m not suited for this, so the question is how well I can hold out and for how long with an abnormal number of Servants.
            Even the real thing was only ever meant to hold seven.

            …There’s no real use in whining.
            I will bear it.
            I will bear it because I don’t have a choice.

            “—Nessiah.”
            And when I next open my eyes, Gulcasa is there.

            Smiling against the russet colors of the sunset, pressing something cold against my forehead.
            “—Gulcasa?”
            “Hey.
            “I got you cold medicine and fresh bananas and some beef to roast.
            “And here’s some canned coffee, too.”
            Beatifically.
            “Oh, and thanks to her, we also don’t have to worry about having cheated those stores.
            “—I made sure that I wasn’t seen, and I counted out the difference of all the money we should have been spending and snuck it into registers.
            “So, we can fight with clear consciences from now on.”

            “—Goodness, are you a Servant or are you some kind of Brownie?”
            I imagine Gulcasa flitting about throughout the town like some morality fairy, and I can’t help but smile.
            “I’m impressed that you managed to keep track of all the sums.
            “—It seems you really did improve your logistics skills after I left.
            “Well, it never impacted your skills as a leader because the rest of us were always there to pick up the slack, but no amount of charisma could ever get you anywhere with paperwork and numbers.”
            “Come on, that hurts.”
            Gulcasa is laughing.
            “We can just say that my latent talents blossomed under duress.
            “And, anyhow, it’s only been a few days so it’s not like it’s that much to remember.”

            Slowly, I sit up.
            Gulcasa is already peeling a banana, and he hands me the cold can when I do.
            “Don’t eat too many of these or you’re going to ruin your appetite for dinner, but it says on the pill package that you shouldn’t have them on an empty stomach, so I’m giving you one early.
            “And even then, don’t waste energy charging around when you really do need to rest.”
            I sigh and don’t bother replying to his worrying.
            Instead, I just pop the tab on the can and take a sip.
            The coffee isn’t too bitter or too sweet, and I can taste the traces of herbs like ginseng, so apparently it has some kind of boost for energy.

            “I like those pop tab things.”
            Meanwhile, Gulcasa just keeps on talking.
            “They’re convenient. It really makes me feel like humanity’s progressed, looking at clever little things they’ve come up with over the past couple centuries.”
            “Hmm, I’m afraid that they’ve only progressed as far as creating convenient tools goes.
            “—From what I can tell, they’re just as preoccupied with killing each other as ever.”
            …And now that I don’t have any vested interest in it, that’s gotten boring.
            Your lives are so short, so go do something other than making them even shorter, why don’t you—that kind of feeling.
            Although it’s not as though they’d listen to me even if I cared about trying to stop them.

            “Unfortunately, that’s just how humans are.
            “—Honestly, people talk so much about demons and monsters being chaotic and evil beings, but the human race has got us beat by miles.”
            Gulcasa says so matter-of-factly, but the smile is gone from his face.
            “It’s a shame, though. We’re existences outside of the world, so all we can do is clean up people’s messes instead of healing them.
            “Gaia’s a harsh mistress.
            “If it were possible, it would be nice to try to nudge people in a more peaceful direction, but…”
            He sighs.

            “That’s the difference between you and me, I suppose.
            “You would rather love them, if you can, but when I don’t have any business with other beings I avoid them.
            “I don’t think of us as having very much in common, at least on a basis of comparing myself to an entire race of thinking beings.
            “On an individual scale things are a bit different, though.”

            “Here you go.”
            Gulcasa hands me the peeled banana and a pill that calls itself an antipyretic.
            I take my time on the banana, since it’s been so long.
            And even when I drink coffee to help wash down the medicine, it doesn’t take the faint sweetness out of my mouth.

            And then I lie back down.
            Gulcasa sorts out his cooking materials, and picks up a cup with a fat straw in it.

            “—Hold on, is that…?”
            Hearing me speak, Gulcasa looks at the plastic cup.
            He glances back at me and begins to laugh a bit awkwardly.
            Clearly he was naïve enough to think that I wouldn’t notice.

            “Well, um, I guess I wanted to try it after seeing it.
            “—It looked unexpectedly fun, for a drink, so…”

            “If you say so.”
            I won’t tease him for right now.
            It would be like a pot and a kettle taunting each other for being black, for one thing.

            “It’s actually tasty though, seriously.
            “—Here, try it and see.”
            But Gulcasa holds out the cup of bubble tea insistently, starting to go red in the face.
            …Oh.
            Apparently I have a bad enough reputation that even refusing to bite is being looked at as a kind of teasing.
            …I’m not sure how I feel about this.

            “If you insist, I suppose I’ll help myself.”
            And so I carefully push myself up onto my elbows so that I can take a sip through the straw.

            “—Uwah, it’s sweet.”
            “…I guess so? I didn’t think it was that bad.”
            Well, it’s not so bad that I can’t drink it, but I suppose hearing tea makes me think of flavors a little bit more neutral than this.
            But then again, the bits of tapioca inside the milky fruit tea add an interesting texture.
            “Hmm, I guess I have to agree with your appraisal.
            “It isn’t bad, certainly.”

            Gulcasa smiles at me and bids me to lie back down, so I do.
            “…Oh.”
            Hearing me speak makes him look over his shoulder.
            I tap my cheek as I think aloud.
            “—Coincidentally.
            “That right there is what they call an indirect kiss, isn’t it?
            “Quite bold of you. I didn’t realize.”

            And.
            Gulcasa’s face goes an even more brilliant crimson than his hair.

            “Th-that’s not it at all!”
            “Oh? But the end result wound up that way even if you didn’t mean it like that, didn’t it?”
            “Stupid—if I want to kiss you, I’ll just go straight out and kiss you!
            “Damn it, I might as well go ahead then, I’ll fix your goddamn mystery cold by stealing it from you mouth to mouth!!”
            “…Gulcasa. It’s good that you’re passionate, but I’m not going to count it as a kiss if there’s ulterior motive. And more importantly, you need to cook dinner.”
            He sighs and looks away from me.
            “Yes, I do. And I’m not letting you distract me any more than this anyway.”

            But even so, after this…
            I can see even lying down and resting that every time he picks up the cup to take a sip, he blushes as if he can’t get my words out of his head.

 

            Thanks to Gulcasa softening the atmosphere with conversation and to dinner, I’m feeling considerably better when it’s finally time to go out.
            I’m grateful for the weather turning a bit gentler, as the air is chilly but much more temperate than it has been before.
            This is the first day I’ve actually been able to think that it feels a bit nice when there’s no wind instead of just wanting to hide in Gulcasa’s arms and not venture out.

            “—Miyama again, or do we want to stay in Shinto?”
            “Well.
            “I think I’ve already said this once, but the enemy I’d rather not deal with unless it’s completely on our own terms is in Shinto.
            “And he’s more likely to either stay where he is or just send his Servant out to do his bidding alone, so I think Miyama is still safer.”

            Gulcasa nods silently in response, and we cross the bridge.

            The town feels ominous in the pale light of the night.
            As usual, we make our way through the dead intestines of the empty residential district.
            The deserted buildings would each make a fitting nest for Masters who have no lodgings, but on the other hand they are conspicuous, as the presence of life within would stand out.
            Someone might be in one of these houses, but we have not yet found anyone.
            All of the Masters we have ever run across here have been patrolling.

            “—”
            The girl said that she lived on the hill.
            It’s the one with a magical presence much like that of the real Second Owner, on the Western-style hill.
            So we avoid both areas and simply traverse the guts of the dead corpse called Miyama City.

            …Here, in this town, we’ve run across Avenger and the two Riders.
            We’ve found Saber, too.
            At least one Servant has been killed in this area, as well.
            So when my shoulder begins to ache with the faint presence of a Command Seal reacting with my own, there’s nothing to be surprised about.

            “—Yeah, there’s definitely a Servant around here somewhere.”
            Gulcasa narrows his eyes and looks about the street.
            “Do you recognize its presence?”
            “I don’t. That means it’s probably one of the ones we haven’t seen yet.
            “Caster, Assassin, Archer, or Lancer… huh.”
            Two of those Servants are dead, although we don’t know which ones.
            …One will be that man’s Servant.
            And the other is a mystery.

            “—I can sense the magi.
            “There’s two of them, a trained magus and an apprentice.”
            I kill my voice so that it is barely even a whisper, although Gulcasa still understands me and nods soundlessly.

            Both of them are far inferior to me in skill level.
            But there’s something about the Servant accompanying them that makes me anxious.
            A premonition.
            “—Gulcasa.
            “You are the strongest Servant, and I am at least a contender for the position of strongest Master. We have that advantage.
            “But the enemy’s Servant is powerful, I can sense that much from here.
            “—Go all out and don’t let your guard down.”
            The long red hair waves in the wind as he nods.

            And, finally.
            Running footsteps reach my ears.
            And appearing before us,

            are the forms of a boy, a girl, and a black-winged angel in a red cloak.

            “—”
            I force myself not to react.
            ……I force myself not to let my revulsion show, because if I betray my horror and disgust I will surely be recognized.

            Both the boy and the girl stop a great distance from me.
            Their faces are pale.
            Whether it’s from knowing the distance between us or from awe at Gulcasa’s power, they don’t attempt to approach.
            “—”
            But the angelic Servant simply takes out his Noble Phantasm.
            A jagged, candy-red spear that defies the laws of the world so as to appear perfectly two-dimensional despite possessing ordinary mass and dimensions.
            My skin crawls just looking at it.

            “—Master.”
            The Servant speaks in a dispassionate voice.
            “Your orders.”

            “—”
            The boy sucks in his breath and bites his lip.
            …I see.
            With the clearly inferior magus as its Master, this Servant will not be functioning at full potential.
            So the odds have already tipped in Gulcasa’s and my favor.
            …And additionally, I can just crush these two magi and be done with it.

            “—If you don’t want us to stop you by force, then use up all your Command Spells and forfeit right now.”
            He calls out in a voice shivery with bravado, like a lion cub attempting to roar at a much larger enemy.
            “Lancer’s strong, so we won’t lose to anyone. You should do what we say and settle this peacefully.”

            “…Hmph.
            “I’d say the same to you.
            “First of all, no matter the basic strength of your Servant, a Master that cannot support it properly will drag it down. Surely you must understand this.
            “……But much more importantly, child, do you fail to realize that like you, some people have things that they cannot surrender no matter how they are threatened?
            “As is the case with me.
            “If you wish to break my bond with Berserker, you’ll have to kill one of us, or separate us by force and tear all the nerves out of my body.”

            —He winces, clearly shying away from the ugly image I have presented to him.
            But the girl beside him narrows her eyes.
            “Ein, he’s just trying to make you lose heart. Don’t fall for it.”

            “—Indeed.
            “Participating in the Holy Grail War means trampling the wishes of others to grant your own heart’s desire.
            “Unless you have the resolve to do that, then you had best surrender your own right of Mastery right now.
            “And I warn you.
            “As far as resolve goes, I will not lose to anyone.
            “…I have waited for this war for a very, very long time, and now that the Holy Grail is already within my grasp, I will surrender it to no one.
            “Because—I know what I will never let go of again.”

            Gulcasa turns slightly and glances at me from the corner of his eye as if in surprise.
            I smile for him, but the tension surely makes the expression seem cold on my face.

            “Huh, get real.
            “The way you’re talking, you’re another of the kind of people we’re fighting to keep from getting their hands on the Grail.”
            Again, it is the girl who brushes away my words.

            “…Oh?
            “Goodness, I had no idea that we were facing down the morality police.”
            “Shut up.”
            This time, the boy also joins in.
            “—Don’t mock us.
            “It’s our sworn duty to keep the Holy Grail away from selfish people and evildoers, in place of the supervisor.”

            Their expressions all change immediately as nausea and rage seizes my insides.
            …I do wonder what kind of a face I’m making; it really must be unpleasant to look at it.

            “…As expected of that man.
            “I’d guessed that he’d have at least one other puppet Master deployed, but three? You could certainly never fault him for underdoing it.”

            …I am angry.
            I can say that honestly, and I can also say that it has been a very long time since I have been as angry as I am right now.
            This is a level that even I would never sink to.

            “—Master, your orders.”
            The Grim Angel Servant repeats in the same emotionless tone.

            “C’mon, Ein.
            “There’s nothing to talk about anymore.”

            “Your friend is certainly right.”
            I take out the Revelation and open it with a snap.
            Adrenaline is racing through my body, and the glyphs underneath my skin tighten as my heart rate speeds up.
            “—I don’t have anything to say to foolish pawns who would blindly oppose someone fighting for the sake of love.”

            …At my words.
            Gulcasa whirls around halfway to stare at me.
            His wide-eyed, bewildered expression is so cute.

            Just that allows me to smile.
            I step forward so that I’m right beside him, take his hand and squeeze it tightly.
            “…So.
            “Don’t hold back, all right?
            “They’re underlings of the one who did this to me, and you’ve heard them spouting off their foolish ideals just as I have.
            “—Leave the magi to me and show everyone here your real power.”

            Gulcasa clutches my hand back.
            He doesn’t speak, but his smile is warm and shy.
            …And, when he lets go of me and moves to stand between me and our enemies, his body is wrapped in armor in a great flash of flame.
            He holds his Noble Phantasm with pride, and leaps forward to clash with Lancer in the middle of the street in a great peal of metal upon metal.

            And I—,

            “—”

            —send the pages of my spellbook scattering through the air around my body and sing.
            The first beat weaves my own protections, and the second and third and fourth electrify the air about my body.
            In the fifth beat, all the pages have returned to their places, and by the sixth and seventh every joint of my fingers is lined with a spell.
            All I will need is to pull the various threads in the air to unleash them—

            “Hah—!”
            And it’s the girl who comes running, agile enough to skirt the edges of Gulcasa and Lancer’s battle, her footfalls powerful enough to shatter the pavement.
            …I can sense it easily.
            She has strengthened her limbs by skilled use of Gradation Air, and spells of a dual sorcery alignment are packed into her hands and feet.
            A gallant and glorious thaumaturgy technique befitting of this new age.
            But—

            I hold out my hands and carefully fold my left little finger in.
            Lightning splits the air, and she dances out of the way, her own carefully set up spell going wide as the timing misaligns.

            “Rose!”
            “Dammit—”
            She dances on flames, pirouettes, and swings her heel towards me in a sideways axe kick.
            I catch the blow on the closed cover of the Revelation, and she is blown back as her leg receives all the force and stress with which she swung it.

            “—Damn, he’s actually good—”
            I can’t help but laugh at that.
            “Yes, sorry to say, but I didn’t get to where I am without considerable study and practice.”
            You’re certainly not going to be catching me off guard with melee magic.
            …And.
            Like playing a harp.
            I flex the fingers of my left hand.

            “—”
            When electricity and wind explode around her into razor blows, she actually manages to set off the spells she’s built up in order to partially deflect the damage.
            But as she’s staggering back with forearms burnt from shielding her face, I grip the Revelation hard and swing it to strike her in the ribs.

            “Agh, damn—”
            “Rose!!”

            She’s blown back and rolls.
            I fire lightning strikes off my fingertips, and she manages to squirm back down the road like a cat to avoid a killing blow.

            But.
            There’s only so far she can go before she’s cornered.
            And so, I raise my arm.
            With her out of the way I’ll be able to strike at Lancer’s Master, the boy named Ein, directly.

            “—”

            It’s just that, in that moment.
            Something like a red-hot pole is driven into my body through my heart.

            “—?!!!”
            My vision blurs so badly that I stagger and fall to one knee.
            Superimposed over the road before me—

            —images of a tall woman in white armor and the bloody form of a dark-haired female knight disintegrating into ash—

            “Ah, agh, kh—!”
            I could vomit.
            Hot blood is already running over my lips and dripping at the ground.
            No.
            Stop it.
            This is too much, I can’t take any more than this, there isn’t room under my skin for more than two without my head splitting open, my body can’t fit any more, what kind of homunculus do I look like to you, I’m not a woman and there’s no kind of natural “crucible” inside my body to store you, so quit it, please stop this right now, I can’t—

            An illusion of hands ripping my stomach open from the inside.
            An illusion of black mud flowing out of my throat when I try to vomit.
            An illusion of hands pressing me down into the broken ground, heavy knees forcing my legs apart.
            An illusion of blood running from between my legs, enough for me to bleed to death.
            An illusion of rotten meat and fur being crammed into every loose space in my body, blocking off my esophagus and trachea.
            An illusion of my lungs exploding with white mold.
            An illusion of my flesh turning to brightly colored jelly and sloughing away from my bones.
            An illusion of —’s bloated penis expanding inside my body to rip me in two.
            An illusion of white acid spattering across my face to burn my skin away.
            An illusion of my own fingers digging into the tiny gap between the edge of my eye socket and the eye itself.
            An illusion of my eye being violated by a sharp scalpel.
            An illusion of my wings being ripped away splinter by splinter, tearing my blood vessels out with them.
            An illusion of raw crystallized prana taking up the space where all my blood vessels were supposed to have been.

            “U, uu, ng—”
            “Nessiah—!!”

            Warm hands, rough and so real that I could cry, grasp my shoulders and shake me.
            I am on my knees, hyperventilating and choking, vomiting blood, and my Servant is kneeling next to me with a face bone-white from panic.

            And,
            in the open window made by the crook of his arm,
            I can see Lancer rushing towards us—

            “—!!”
            I cannot even gather myself to speak in real words, so when my arms swing up automatically and my hands clench to release every single spell my body can at once, all that comes out is a scream.

            “Lancer, disappear!”
            And.
            As if to answer it, the young Master screams and his Servant vanishes the instant he comes in contact with my strike.

            “Nessiah—Nessiah, what the hell’s wrong? Nessiah, say something!!”
            As if oblivious to our enemies, as if he doesn’t even care that he was almost killed, Gulcasa continues to shake me with a panicked expression.
            …But I can’t answer.
            That just now was all I had.

            ……It hurts.
            It really, really hurts, you know?
            There’s no room for me in this body, and my mind can’t cope with the sensation.

            So my eyes close, and to protect my mind, my consciousness shuts out right there.

(interlude 6-1)

            “It sounds like it’s started to rain.”
            At the words from his Servant, the Master called Roswell Branthèse looks up from his book.
            …Distantly.
            There’s the patter of droplets on the windowpanes, just as Saber—as Yggdra had said.

            Not really doing anything, he listens to the sound of the rain.
            Lost in his thoughts, he simply takes in the atmosphere.
            Yggdra herself does not venture any other words.
            She simply sits with her hands folded on the sofa.

            “—At least it’s gotten warm enough that it’s rain instead of snow.”
            He speaks the words idly.
            “It’s probably pretty miserable outside right now, though.
            “From the sound of things, tomorrow will have awful weather as well…”

            The two continue to sit in silence, keeping their individual thoughts to themselves.

 

            —And.

            With the suddenness of a gale.
            There is the sound of a fierce knock on the door.

            “—”
            He clutches at the back of his hand, his eyes widening as if at some kind of sign.
            Still the knocking goes on.
            At first it is violent and extremely noisy, but after a few moments the blows against the door begin to lose their strength, as if the knocker has lost hope.

            “—”
            When he turns to Yggdra, she nods just once.

            And so, he cautiously stands and makes his way towards the door, his Servant preparing to do battle from where she is if there is need.

            But.
            When finally he opens the door,
                        the sight that awaits him steals his thoughts and his breath away.

 

            The pair of them are soaked to the skin.
            From the doorstep, the Servant Berserker with whom he and Yggdra clashed days ago stares at him with golden eyes huge in his white face.
            He is breathing in great gasps, white breath forced into the air in huge clouds only to be torn apart by the falling rain.
            His long hair clings at his face and his clothes, darkened with the amount of water it has soaked up.
            …And, in his arms, the loose fetal curl of his Master, limp and bloody and making faint pained noises.

            It’s only natural that Roswell would be lost for words at such a sight.
            There are too many questions to be asked in a situation like this, and he must consciously bring himself out of his own shock in order to prioritize them and decide where to begin.

            But he does not even get the chance for that.

            Berserker opens his mouth to speak.

 

                        “…Please.
                        “——Help us—”

(6-1 interlude out.)