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Vagrant Grail Cadenza

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            —This is the story of someone dear to me.
            This is—a story three years from then.

            Finally.
            When the empire had become stable, and the common people were no longer struggling to survive—the young emperor turned towards the neighboring country.
            He had pledged, the night before his formal coronation, that he would spread his ideals throughout the world.
            The memories were hazy, but of that much he was certain.
            Just because they were outside his borders, that didn’t mean that he could turn a blind eye to every other country that was exactly like the empire had been in his childhood.
            The world was a huge place.
            A human could never hope to truly change or reform the twisted society of the entire world, not over the course of one lifetime.
            But the young emperor was not human.

            He would directly confront and subdue the corrupt governments of other countries, enact the same kind of reform that he had done in the empire, and extend a hand to the weak and the disenfranchised across the entire world.
            His army had sufficient power and skill for that, after three years’ worth of building on what they already had.

            As for the first target—
            Consulting with his friends, the young emperor chose the kingdom to the southeast.
            The kingdom was the dominant power on the continent, and the other countries in their world flourished or decayed based on whether the kingdom deigned to offer aid or not.
            The young emperor had learned while studying history that the kingdom had been founded when its people had driven out the indigenous folk of the plains.
            Never mind that those people had had a storied society and even their own royal family.
            They were in a period of decline, and the founders of the new kingdom had desired their land, crying justice and beating them down.
            The sovereigns of the kingdom possessed great military power and political finesse, and had strong ties with the surrounding countries.
            …That kingdom was at the root of everything.
            They claimed a connection to gods and angels, and it even seemed that the stigma against those with demon blood might have come from the kingdom’s influence.

            Back when the young emperor had first thought of using the power of nobles to get to a position where he could save others—
            At that time, speaking to his two childhood friends, he had said that evil would never disappear unless cut off at the root.
            Even now, he still thought that his reasoning had been correct.

            It wasn’t as though the kingdom was the root of all evil.
            In the first place, it would be terribly unjust to blame all the people living in the kingdom for what its sovereigns and nobles had started and were perpetuating.
            Countries were not monolithic entities. The revolution in the empire, and its change from its former shape, were proof enough of that.
            And so even though much fault could be traced back to the kingdom and the minds of those in power, it did not mean that by defeating the kingdom the young emperor’s job would be done.
            The scars of the discrimination burnt into the people’s minds by the way they had lived would take a long time to heal, and there would probably be resistance.
            And even with the influential people of the kingdom reduced to the same level as its commoners—they were not the root of evil at all.
            Evil—injustice and prejudice and all of those things came from the human heart.
            The young emperor’s true battle was against human nature itself.
            But he believed that if he were able to reform the rules of society, and help to change the way that people thought, then he could lay the proper foundations.
            If it took all of his life, that was all right.
            It would be a long and difficult cycle of war and reconstruction, like burning a field and then replanting it in hopes that the soil rich with nutrients would foster a better yield.
            Fighting the kingdom would only be the first step.

            …But beyond his own thoughts.
            The twin girls who had stood beside him for so long urged him onward.
            Saying that the kingdom was evil.
            The two of them, usually so quiet and polite, both gave voice to rage and hurt when any conversation strayed towards the topic of that country.

            The young emperor did not know very much.
            Those girls’ old grudge was obviously still very raw, and with the scars of his own past still bleeding into his heart, he didn’t have it in him to push them to explain.
            Perhaps once their battle was over, they would tell him the truth in full.

            …Those girls urged him forward.
            His lover, the prophet, also confirmed that this would be the best first step.
            And so—the young emperor mobilized his army after many months of preparation, and swept over the border to descend upon the royal cavalry like the right arm of an angry god.

            In short, it was a complete rout.
            The kingdom might have been eyeing the national border suspiciously since the coup, but they certainly weren’t expecting a blitzkrieg attack of this magnitude.
            Their long hegemony had made them complacent.

            It took only the scant space of a few weeks to make it through the border fortress and into the capital.
            The young emperor had ordered his forces sharply to ignore the civilians, and so the assault descended directly upon the castle.
            He engaged the king in combat personally.
            Befitting of a sovereign with a reputation for hands-on work, the king was an extremely fierce opponent.
            …The young emperor wondered at first what had become of the king’s giant bastard sword, which he had heard was the pride of the kingdom, as his enemy faced him down with an unadorned longsword.
            But he put the matter from his mind quickly, because when facing such an opponent he simply could not afford to let his attention waver.

            The king was the most powerful fighter that the young emperor had ever faced.
            More powerful, even, than his predecessor had been.
            …But in the end the king was only human, and the young emperor had his demon blood to rely upon.
            And the battle ended in one single strike.

            He took the time to breathe as his opponent fell, suddenly aware of his exhaustion and his wounds and the enemy’s blood on his face and armor.
            And, at that time—his gaze fell idly upon a girl standing on a high balcony.
            Their eyes met.
            He could see that she was dressed in very fine clothing, and that she held an immense sword.
            But as soon as it occurred to him that the girl was the princess and she was holding the kingdom’s greatest weapon, she had already fled.

            …Aside from the princess’ escape, the coup of the kingdom’s government had gone perfectly.
            The king and his generals, the courtiers were all dead, and the people of the capital were unharmed.
            But the young emperor’s instincts warned him that he could not just allow the princess to go on her way.
            There was every chance that she would try to form a resistance, push the civilians into fighting, and make it that much more difficult for the kingdom’s upper class to accept his reforms and that he meant them no harm.
            He ordered his troops to search for her, capture her.
            …While he secured the capital, his people chased the princess and her guards to the end of the continent itself.
            There, splintered into tiny groups by the effort of searching with human wave tactics—his soldiers were stymied by a large gang of thieves.

            His friends returned to him ashamed of their failures, but he reassured them even as he privately roiled with frustration.
            Through a combination of luck and superior knowledge of the kingdom’s terrain, the princess had met up with a small group of sympathizers and slipped through his fingers, out past the kingdom’s eastern borders.
            That way lay a pair of smaller countries that were on good relations with the kingdom.
            The young emperor had no fear that she might gain significant allies there, as according to his lover’s reports both countries were embroiled in civil wars.
            He had even dispatched a few troops to each of them—his assassins, to quietly remove the ruling party of the Undines’ country and halt the genocide taking place there; a general each to the two mages preparing to tear their land to pieces over a petty rivalry, to remove the magical weapons that were the source of their feud while their backs were turned.
            …But in both cases—the princess got there first.
            Unbelievably.
            She and her troops ended both civil wars in an appalling show of bloodshed, annihilating one side of each conflict.
            The princess clashed with his dispatched men both times, and it was all that his friends could do to keep her busy until they had safely made off with the contentious magical weapons.
            And after that—she disappeared into the mountains east of the royal capital.

            The losses were frustrating and rather embarrassing, but the young emperor was much more concerned about two things.
            He had hoped to save those countries.
            If the war with the kingdom had only gone smoothly, he could have personally stopped the conflicts, mediated between the two sides, and forged bonds with the people and the rulers without having to resort to violent methods.
            But instead, the inexperienced princess had arrived before him and put an end to the wars in what he suspected was the only way she knew how—brute force.
            Appalling destruction.
            If this was the way that the kingdom had always interacted with other nations, then he could understand why they had obeyed for fear of it.
            He had underestimated her, never expected that she would do such a thing—his new foe, whom he had only seen in person for a scant few seconds.
            He couldn’t predict what she would do next, except:
            If she intended to rebel against him, as no amount of high ideals changed the fact that he and his men had subjugated her government through war—then there was surely a way to reach the capital through the mountains.
            The young emperor stationed guards around the royal capital from all sides, and posted his generals to block the capital’s side of the mountain path.
            …If she intended to reclaim her homeland, then he would wait for the fight to come to him.

            When the rebel army attacked the occupied capital, it was entirely without warning.
            The young emperor would learn later that the princess had crept past his troops under cover of fog, and an ally of hers had blocked off the road when his army had found her that prevented the imperial runners from being able to send a message to him.
            …As it was, the forces he had set to guarding the capital’s perimeter caught sight of her, but it was a near thing.
            There wasn’t enough time to make preparations, and his forces couldn’t link together well.
            The old general and the younger of the twins were delayed making their way down the mountains.
            The mercenaries he had hired were insufficient to stall the princess, so that when the older of the twins arrived to pinion the enemy, they were already halfway done breaking into the capital, and barricaded the entrance behind them.
            …His sister engaged the princess immediately, but her aerial force alone was again insufficient; this left the knight and the witch’s divisions alone to stop them.
            The entire battle was a mess: His army was trained for working together cohesively to crush the enemy before them, and they could not hope for a decisive victory on unfamiliar terrain while in pieces.
            To make things worse, the prophet and the new general recruited from the royal prisoners would not arrive in time to join in; when the old general and the assassins had again failed, the young emperor and the younger of the twins joined the battle early in an attempt to keep their forces from being driven out entirely.
            …The battle was long and very bitter.
            The princess’ army had captured a cannon and continually used its bombardment against him, and individually the army’s members were all diamonds in the rough as far as talent went.
            They could not yet work together very well, and the princess herself was very inexperienced.
            But the advantage belonged to her, between her greater numbers and her familiarity with the land of the capital.

            Even so, the young emperor had very nearly won when she inflicted a deep wound upon him.
            Incensed, he initially tried to keep fighting despite the rapid blood loss, but the valkyrie who fought for him and his bodyguards forced him off the field of battle, retreating like the rest of them out of the city gates.

            …What to do.
            Most of his army had already retreated back towards the royal fortress they had captured in their first attack, and were regrouping there.
            It was clearly useless to mount another attack on the royal capital immediately, but something had to be done about the princess and her army before they mounted a counterattack to invade the empire.
            If there was anything he had learned about that girl in their brief clash, it was that she was determined to kill him in revenge for her parents’ deaths, to the point that she would abandon reason at the very sight of him.

            His own injuries needed treatment, of course, but that was a secondary concern.
            The young emperor had only what remained of his platoon and the younger twin’s, and the prophet’s fresh division—which a messenger had told him was waiting for orders on the other side of the river that still separated him from the fortress occupied by the rest of his army.

            …If there was a lesson that he should learn from this—it was that his power was still insufficient.
            He needed still greater strength, or a trump card that could end the war in an instant if need be—and any matter that involved his powers as a demon would necessitate a trip to that distant barren land, once again.
            So the young emperor made a plan.

            Of course it was both simple and carried a great deal of personal risk.
            …But that was the way that the young emperor had always done things.
            His choice of opponent for his first real conquest had now endangered his people, and if he failed here then what of his promise in the memory of the girl who had raised him?
            No matter what, he could not falter here—thinking that, he acted as bait to draw the princess out alone.

            …For all that it was an incredibly simple ploy, it worked out rather well.
            Receiving news about the young emperor and his guards retreating, the princess came out to chase him alone.
            Wounded as the young emperor was, and powerful as the girl’s rage made her, she had abandoned all technique in a blind charge for his throat.
            As the more experienced fighter, it was easy for him to avoid serious injuries while drawing her onward.
            And, once they had crossed the river and thus separated her from any help that might come—he had his forces destroy the bridge and surround her.

            Of course, by that point, the princess’ army had caught wind that something was going on.
            But it was too late.
            The young emperor had chosen his path, and the princess had fallen for his ruse face-first.

            She fought like a wild thing: Lacking the sheer power of her prior rage, but desperate still.
            Even as the young emperor’s troops surrounded her, she killed all that she could reach.
            …It was a race against time, as there was only so long that they had to subdue her before her army caught up, saw that the way forward was blocked, and decided to cut off his army’s escape route instead.
            He was frustrated, he was tired, and he was still badly injured.
            In that condition, it couldn’t be helped.
            He made—a mistake.

            For an instant—the princess had an opening.
            She latched on to it, lunged forward, and would have had him there and then.
            But in the small window of time in which he realized his error—the prophet seized him and pushed him back.
            The blade that had been meant for his body struck a fatal blow on his lover instead.

            At that time—everything else in the world fell away.
            That a battle was still raging right beside them, that they only had so long to escape—all those practical realities flew out of his head.
            He didn’t understand.
            The man in his arms was rapidly losing consciousness along with his lifeblood.
            …He knew that, but he still didn’t understand.
            He had never wanted to lose anyone again since the day that so many people had left his life, but this man most of all.
            The prophet had supported him so much, and the young emperor had loved and relied upon him very deeply.
            It must be impossible for someone so vital to his existence to disappear.

            …In the end.
            His army, directed by the younger twin, fled to the border fortress carrying three things.
            Their prisoner, the princess, who had finally been mobbed into unconsciousness.
            The small corpse of the prophet, who had sacrificed himself to save him.
            And the young emperor himself, who was in a state of such deep shock that the world seemed blurred around him like an oil painting—

 

            When I wake and try to catalogue myself, there are a few things that immediately come to my notice.
            I’m warm and comfortable and lucid, and have feeling in all my limbs as I should.
            Furthermore, my muscles feel loose and limber, that peculiar sensation that lingers in the body after strenuous activity, as though the body is purring in contentment at one’s using it to its fullest.
            And Gulcasa is here with me.
            …He’s lying on top of the sheets instead of beneath them, he’s wearing pants, and his hair is slightly damp, and so I deduce that he must have awakened earlier and gone to clean off before returning to my side.

            “…There really isn’t any helping us.”
            I say so out loud.
            No matter what he said to me last night, there’s no way that it could be enough that I regret letting things end that way after the fact.
            …And even if I said that the only possible way to compensate for the pain I put him through would be to do it over again properly now that we have this chance, that’s just my own selfishness.
            Even if we manage to seize this chance and succeed beyond all probability—Gulcasa lost so many things that can’t be returned to him anymore.
            My battle is for my own satisfaction only.
            If I were to put on airs to myself claiming that I wanted to save Gulcasa, that would be pointless self-deception.
            In the first place, if I wanted to save Gulcasa, I would have to turn back time and head off that war before it even began.
            …No, I would have to go further back, and not plant self-destructive ideas about world conquest in his head in the first place.

            And it’s difficult to explain why, but that would be wrong.
            …To erase everything that Gulcasa lived through wouldn’t save him.
            The past can be regretted and mourned, but it cannot be taken back.
            To do so would be to deny the meaning of those days.
            Even if all I know how to do is selfishly ensure my own happiness, all I can do at this late date is take care of Gulcasa to the best of my ability.

            Even so.
            “Hah… I really should have decided on my priorities so much sooner.”
            It’s obvious now that I’ve realized it, of course.
            What were the feelings that drove me to desire revenge?
            Why did I fear being discovered so much, and what did I have to gain from victory?
            …In Asgard, we were a cloistered underclass, and yet even within that society so regimented it felt like being strangled, I could sense it.
            There was a large difference between the way that we Grim Angels lived and the lives of the humans and angels.
            Of course most people aren’t going to want to fight senseless battles if they know that there is an alternative.
            I was simply precocious, and realized the alternative quickly.

            …Simply put—I wanted to live.
            I was nothing but a weapon.
            The society I was born in very literally refused me personhood, and I was finally worn down to being a toy for Hector to abuse when I was not actively performing my duty of battle.
            But we were self-aware beings with hearts and minds just like everyone else.
            The only difference was our greater power and physical instability.
            So it wasn’t logical for us to be mere objects with no right to choose anything for ourselves.
            I wanted to exert my free will, refuse to fight, and live.

            …A warm place.
            Not having to fear the people around me, knowing that they respect my autonomy and would not touch me without my consent.
            Freedom to choose what I liked, live how I liked, and acceptance from the world.
            Somewhere that could find worth in order and chaos, and that granted unconditional worth to everyone there.
            And maybe even positive bonds with other people.
            A warm, safe place.

            I had that.
            I had that in my hands once, but I was too afraid to let my guard down against the possible threat of Asgard.
            There was still so much hurt and fear, and I didn’t know how to let go of it.
            My confusion was immediate and all-consuming then.
            And—before I really had the chance to let myself relax and realize what should be most important to me, everything broke.
            No, I think I had already realized deep down.
            I was afraid of admitting it to myself.
            Would it really be all right to give up on revenge, when I’d fought for it so long—I felt as though I had to see it through.
            So, letting go of such a goal and knowingly leaving myself vulnerable was more frightening than anything in the world.
            If I had realized, I would have had no choice but to give it up, and so I’m sure I was subconsciously deceiving myself.

            …That warm place, the idea of freedom.
            It was only a vague idea deep in my heart, something I couldn’t allow myself to imagine.
            But it existed, and I had it.

            And because of my mistakes, it is gone and will never come back.
            No matter how I regret or grieve, I cannot take it back.
            That is my indelible sin.

            I have Gulcasa.
            I’m fighting to win against the person who was responsible for so much of my pain.
            And if I win, I will obtain “freedom”.
            But even though I can be with the person I love the most—we should have lived together in a much brighter and kinder place, filled with so many other friendly and familiar faces.
            Right now, Gulcasa can say things like “my priorities are different” because the world that he wanted to save and the people who meant so much to him are all gone.

            …There’s nothing that I can do but live with that.
            We can’t go back to our garden of eternity.
            A selfish happiness for the two of us, rather than a distant dream of utopia that would tenderly embrace the entire world.

            “But I’m selfish, after all.”
            Living with that truth will be painful, but that is my only possible penance.
            I can’t take back my sin any more than I could recreate that dream.

            …If I have Gulcasa, I can keep living even under the weight of all the millennia I have survived.
            And as long as I have Gulcasa, I will try to grant him even the tiniest sliver of the happiness that should have always been his.
            If he can smile from the heart again, then I’ll know I’m on the right path.

            “…Nessiah?”
            It appears that the man in question is awake.
            Gulcasa’s eyes are half-open and still dizzy with sleep, but he pushes himself up on his elbows and looks at me in a daze.
            “Were you saying something just now?”

            “—It’s not important, all I was doing was talking to myself.
            “Your memories are that kind of subject matter, so I was simply reminded again that you’re a hopeless case and that I need to devote myself to taking proper care of you from here on out.
            “…That’s really all.”

            Gulcasa tilts his head to the side, as if amazed.
            “—”
            And—he smiles.

            “…The look you get when you talk about the future suits you.”
            “—”
            All I can do at those words is stare blankly.
            Gulcasa reaches out, and his warm hand touches my face.
            “When we’re done with all of this, I hope we can talk about it a lot more.”
            “…Yes, once we’re done with this. It may still be too soon to talk about the future when it’s a possibility so fragile that it could pop like a soap bubble at any time.”

            Gulcasa stares at me without averting his gaze.
            I can’t tell what he’s thinking when he looks at me this intensely.

            …Instead of saying anything.
            He pushes himself up off the bed slowly, rising directly into contact with me so that our lips touch.

            I close my eyes.
            Gulcasa’s kiss is passionate, but not forceful.
            Soft like a dream.
            Like he’s telling me not to say things like that.
            Like he’s trying to distract me from the instability that pervades our lives.
            Only think about right now and the immediate future, like jumping from moment to moment as if they’re wet stones over messy rapids.

            “—”
            Our breath has synchronized by the time we pull away from each other.
            Gulcasa smiles faintly.
            “You worry too much.”
            “And you’re very energetic this early in the morning.”
            …He laughs.
            “You don’t have to worry, I don’t intend to knock you back out when you’ve just got up.
            “We’re supposed to be talking strategy and things today, and I know you won’t want to lie in and miss out on important stuff.
            “Now, come on. I don’t know whose turn it is to do breakfast today, but if we can beat the others to the kitchen I’ll make you stuff.”

 

            …Of course.
            Since Gulcasa went ahead and said it, both Roswell and Yggdra are already awake, and the kitchen rapidly becomes noisy as a stage play.
            There’s a great deal of complaining as to the contents of the by-now-mostly-ignored schedule, a sizable amount of insults between Gulcasa and the princess, and when they at least attempt to make Roswell go away he holds up his hands in a gesture of surrender and says that he’s just going to stay to make sure there are no casualties.

            “—”
            I sigh, and stay out of the way because I have no interest in cooking anyway and besides, the scene before me looks tiresome to be a part of.

            “Hey, Nessiah, hurry up and tell these idiots whose breakfast you’d rather eat!”
            …Oh.
            Just when I was thinking that it looked tiresome, someone decided to make it even more so.
            …I look towards the three fools standing in the kitchen and sigh so that they can all hear it.
            “—It’s not as though my answer will be any different today than it has always been.
            “Please don’t drag me into this farce when you know that, just watching you right now is tiring me out. Settle things between you as you like.
            “And, Roswell, rather than attempting to get in the way of those two hotheaded enthusiasts, I would like very much if you stepped aside to make me coffee.
            “I would do so myself, but there’s a rather high risk that if did I would become embroiled in this already intensely ridiculous argument, so I’d prefer to refrain.
            “In addition to which, I just sat down.”

            The three of them all look at me as if in shock.
            I flap a listless hand at them to encourage them to carry on.
            …Roswell turns his back on the other two so that they don’t see his smile as he makes the coffee.

            Within no time at all, the kitchen is filled with the smell of coffee, and Roswell and I are sitting at the table with a mug apiece, watching the argument before us unfold.
            “—They certainly do get along.”
            It’s the truth.
            Before, this situation would be full of serious hostility and about to erupt into a battlefield at any time, but even though Gulcasa and Yggdra are shouting at each other with full steam, the killing intent from before is absent.
            Roswell is no more concerned than I am, and merely observes the kitchen peacefully.
            The only real thing to worry about here is whether the two fools will be too busy arguing to even cook anything, or if their argument will distract them from actually making edible dishes.
            …In so little time, this scene has already become a part of everyday life in this house.

            “—We’ll be talking strategy seriously afterwards, so wash the dishes.”
            As the only one who did not contribute to breakfast, I am ordered something like this.
            Honestly, this kind of thing is a little bit beneath my dignity, but I have fine motor control for once, so there is no reason not to listen to the request.
            …Of course, Gulcasa declared halfway through that he wouldn’t let me do the dishes all by myself, and he is at my side drying the dishes that I have already washed.

            “—”
            The sounds of dishes clinking against each other and the water block out all sound that isn’t from the kitchen, and the space feels intimate and private.
            …Maybe because of that feeling of safety, Gulcasa is quietly singing a folk reel.

            I don’t say anything and simply listen.
            His voice was a bit rougher when he was younger and we had just met, but at his current age—that is to say, as an adult of twenty years his voice had stopped deepening.
            Perhaps because of that, his singing voice also settled as a beautiful tenor.

            The song isn’t a native one to the empire, but was popular enough to have traveled around in various countries.
            …Rather, I should say that of course the song isn’t native to the empire, whose own indigenous culture was corrupted by the continual influence of the kingdom near it.
            But Gulcasa was never one to devalue something just because it came from outside his realm of experience.
            I think that this reel is one that he liked.
            And the tone of his voice is soothing.

            We stand side by side and wash dishes.
            In a low tone, Gulcasa sings ‘Molly on the Shore’ and stacks cleaned plates to be put away.
            …It’s odd.
            I want to smile, but at the same time my eyes are very heavy from suppressing the urge to shed tears.

            A sound like rain on a green country.
            It blows away my worries and my conscious thoughts like wind.
            I stand next to Gulcasa and hold every moment close to me before it disappears.

(interlude 14-1)

            While the two are busy.
            Roswell Branthèse quietly leaves the room, followed by his Servant.

            When the distance has been opened.
            On the other side of the house where they cannot be overheard, the two face each other with solemn expressions.

            “…I already know what you want to talk about, I think.”
            Saber says so in a voice that does not rise above a murmur.
            In response, Roswell merely sighs.

            “It’s a detestable topic, but we have to get it out of the way now.
            “—Because there are precious few times that we could talk about such a thing.”

            Saber presses her lips together.
            The girl who was cheerfully arguing with her old rival is gone, and before the young Master stands the queen of cold unreachable beauty he has seen in his dreams.

            “Because no matter what, we can’t allow the Grail to fall into the hands of such a person.”
            Roswell narrows his eyes bitterly.
            “—And as selfish as it might seem, this is for their sake as well.
            “In all likelihood, Berserker’s treatment is only delaying the inevitable, and he will not be saved.
            “The fake vessel.
            “On the inside his body is a terrible mess.
            “The magical violation that has turned him into such a crude container is one thing, but since this is a separate incarnation, the inside of his body shouldn’t be so…”
            His voice trails off, and he bites his lips.
            The body is informed by the soul.
            Therefore, even if one creates a new body, the soul will influence its appearance.

            Berserker’s Master, the heretical Holy Grail vessel, is no exception.
            He is bound by the immortality and eternal youth of his punishment, and so even if his exterior decays his soul will retain its vitality.
            But his body is still very weak, as if regularly battered by rough treatment.
            The fear and loathing with which Nessiah spoke of the magus Hector is enough for Roswell to understand that he has probably been badly abused.
            There is not much else that could affect his physical form so.
            …And from there, it is only logical that he would simply be subjected to more of the same if he survived.

            Yes.
            There is only a very slim chance that Nessiah could be saved, infinitely close to zero.
            Roswell Branthèse knows.
            He is a magus, and he is Saber’s Master, privy to all of her memories.
            Miracles do not exist, and cannot be created by the hands of mortals.
            Therefore, Nessiah will not be saved.
            Either his body will be destroyed as the cost of birthing the complete Grail, or he will fall back into the hands of the fake supervisor and will be driven insane from eternal torture.

            “—As soon as we know for certain that there’s no chance, then.”
            Saber speaks emotionlessly.
            …If anyone can do it, she can.
            Roswell is a magus, but he is not suited for the ruthless lifestyle of his ancestors.
            His pity will fetter him when the time comes.
            But Saber is a thoroughbred murderer, born and raised to kill and reject everything as heir to the most supreme and sublime kingdom.

            “As soon as we know for certain.”
            Roswell agrees, confirming it.

            Miracles do not exist, and cannot be enacted by human hands.
            …So it would be best to simply put an end to this farce immediately.
            But Berserker would get in the way of that.
            Berserker appears to trust them, but at the slightest suggestion of killing intent he will surely resist like a beast.
            Neither of them mean this to be cruel.
            It is only mercy.
            Thus, there would be no point in such a betrayal.

            …Miracles don’t exist.
            But there will be no opportunity unless Berserker is gone, and if Berserker still exists anyway, the possibility has not yet reached zero.
            …That Nessiah might survive, and take it.

            In other words.
            …Even though miracles are impossible.
            As long as Berserker is alive and Nessiah has not irrevocably fallen into the enemy’s hands.
            Roswell Branthèse will hold his breath in wait for a paradox.

            With only those words.
            Roswell Branthèse communicates his will, and Saber nods her head quietly in acceptance.
            As long as the probability is not zero, this tenuous alliance and the farce of the war will be allowed to continue.

            But if the time comes.
            If the time comes, then they will be ready to act—

(14-1 interlude out.)

            “—”
            …With the dishes done and everyone gathered, it’s about time to start discussing strategy from here on out.
            Roswell and Yggdra are both very quiet.
            It’s certainly true that I still need to be careful of them, but as they agree with us that neither Hector nor Yellma should be allowed to lay hands on the contents of the Grail, I shouldn’t need to hold anything back in these strategy discussions.

            “Anyway, we should resume group patrols tonight.
            “—We should all go as a group rather than having Gulcasa and myself remain here.
            “It will always be safer to attack either enemy in a group rather than with a single Servant, and I will be useful in combat, unlike Roswell.”

            Roswell makes a troubled face that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with my commentary on his abilities.
            “—But, Nessiah. Are you sure that you’ll be all right?
            “After all, your body…”

            “—Yes.
            “My natural stores of prana are almost entirely gone, which makes now the best time to act.
            “It’s as we’ve discussed already; wait too long, and my body will start to shut down automatically so that it can still retain the raw material of the Servants’ souls.
            “And of course, it will get worse as soon as the next Servant dies, so we need to settle things as quickly as we possibly can with one to give me the time to recover.
            “You’ve already decided that this is not your battle, and so you mustn’t try to hinder me with halfhearted worries like that.”

            Roswell looks down weakly and narrows his eyes.
            It’s not just my imagination that he seems listless.
            …But that doesn’t matter. I have plenty of guesses as to why he’s acting like this, and now isn’t the time to bring them up.
            Gulcasa doesn’t seem to notice anything, and he’s sure to react badly if I tell him with the culprit right before his eyes.

            “Now that those complaints are out of the way.
            “—There are two Servants remaining.
            “When we confront Caster, we need to be fully prepared.
            “With that man as her Master, and most likely facing them in their home territory, it will be extremely difficult to win without a sufficient plan.
            “So, I would propose that we settle things with Avenger first.
            “…That’s been put off for too long out of sentimentality alone.
            “And as long as she’s already defeated, when Gulcasa and I challenge Caster there will be less opportunity for the death of a new Servant causing problems in the middle of battle.
            “All Gulcasa and Yggdra have to do is not die. That’s something that we can control, unlike the status of an enemy Servant.”

            My words must seem quite brazen.
            Roswell is looking at me with reproach.

            But Gulcasa and Yggdra don’t voice any protests.
            I know that Gulcasa will support me.
            This kind of planning—going out to defeat the enemy before you are defeated yourself—is what suits him best.
            He’s not the type who’s good with staying on the defensive.
            And I’m sure that he too feels as though we owe it to Avenger to end things quickly and cleanly.
            If there isn’t any future for her as Servant to that woman, then freeing her with death after a last honorable battle would probably be kinder than letting her linger on out of halfhearted feelings of concern.
            You can only save who you can save.

            …As for Yggdra, I can’t really tell what she’s thinking.
            She doesn’t seem to object to the plan, but whether that’s because she doesn’t feel obligated to actively contribute now that she no longer wants the Holy Grail or because she approves is unclear to me.

            Roswell sighs.
            “…I’m sure that even that woman will have had the sense to abandon her base after we tracked her down the last time, so what’s your plan for actually finding her?”

            “—It’s simple enough.
            “She knows what I am, and she knows that this is where I’m staying.
            “The barrier is too powerful for someone of her caliber to break through, but if we leave its boundary and enter her field of surveillance, she’ll probably come right back out and take the opportunity to try to capture me again.
            “Her relationship with her Servant is very bad, so if nothing else we can rely on the fact that Avenger won’t be trying especially hard to make sure her Master’s plans progress smoothly.
            “…Too, by my count Yellma should be on her last Command Spell, so there will be a limit to her ability to force Avenger to obey.
            “As for where to start looking, if she doesn’t come to attack us as soon as we’re in a position that offers concealment from ordinary people, I would actually suggest going back to those abandoned houses.
            “It’s common sense to abandon a place that you know is unsafe, and so many people would try to circle back and reinhabit a breached stronghold, thinking themselves clever.
            “Because it’s the last place that someone simpleminded would look, it’s at least worth checking the area to make sure she’s not trying that stale old trick.”

            …We’ll start with the battle that we know we can win.
            From then on, it’s the real final assault.

            “If we meet Caster instead, what then?”
            Yggdra speaks up.

            “In Caster’s case, I would expect that she could make it through this barrier, so instead it would be better to scatter.
            “Depending on the identity of the Servant, she might be able to send out familiars or something to scan the area, but Caster is not a mobile Servant and it should be easy to evade her.
            “I do have one or two places that I could lie low for a while; you could probably slip into highly populated areas to prevent being attacked.
            “Yellma might be different, but Hector at least is sensible enough to not kill large amounts of civilians just to get at one enemy. An easily-traceable crime like that would ruin his image, and I’m sure his peers would love the chance to be able to bury him politically.”

            “—His peers?”
            Roswell looks at me blankly.

            “Yes.
            “—I mentioned before that that man is one chosen by the gods to govern Asgard; whatever else might be said about the gods, they were wise enough to make sure that all their power did not go to a single person.
            “There are six others at about the same level of power and wisdom as him, a closed oligarchy that governs that world. From what I know, they are ferocious political rivals and always at each other’s throats; they’re nominal allies, but the other six would surely love to see him go down in flames, since then their individual slices of pie would become that much thicker.
            “Hector is certainly not the only corrupt one, but he is by far the worst of the lot.
            “…The politics of Asgard are a story for another time, of course.”

            Roswell nods in agreement.
            “—Then. About the actual battle plans.
            “I’m aware that of course Yggdra and Gulcasa are familiar with each other’s battle styles.
            “But they don’t have any real practice fighting as allies, so are there any plans that you recommend to keep them from getting in each other’s way?”

            …It’s a valid concern.
            Certainly, the styles of these two are similar, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t wind up causing trouble with poor communication.
            “That’s true, but to some degree I believe we can leave it to their own combat instincts.
            “—Gulcasa and the princess here are both warrior sovereigns whose individual reigns were based in part upon their prowess.
            “Because this is our fight I’d like to ask for two conditions, however: First, that Yggdra be willing to defer to Gulcasa’s lead if necessary, and second, that we come up with a code or nonverbal signal in order to warn each other before using any Noble Phantasm.
            “We’re allies, but the Servant system isn’t convenient enough to recognize that and cancel out any friendly fire. Furthermore, the Gran Centurio and Prominence are both very powerful attacks with a wide blast radius, and neither of our Servants is really capable of nullifying the other’s Noble Phantasm.
            “They are both top-ranked Servants and might be able to survive at least one blow, but that would be a dangerous situation to put ourselves in.”

            Yggdra folds her hands and rests her chin atop them.
            “…We are supporting you, and so I can acquiesce to your first request.
            “Honestly, because our styles are similar, it should be easy to follow him up.
            “As to the second, we’ll have to devise a signal that isn’t too obvious, as that would let the enemy know we intend to do something.”

            Roswell glances to me.
            “Then—I do have an idea about that.
            “As I can’t participate in close-range combat I’ll be out of the way of the fighting as much as possible, but what about you, Nessiah?
            “I think that given the danger you’re in, you should probably stay back as well, but…”

            At that, I can’t help but sigh.
            “—Honestly I would prefer to directly engage the enemy Master if it’s Yellma, but that seems as though it should be a reasonable precaution to take, yes.”
            “Then, how about this?
            “If Yggdra or Gulcasa plans to use their Noble Phantasm, they can call us telepathically.
            “The Master of that Servant can hand-signal the other of us, who can alert his Servant in time to get away.”
            “…Not a bad idea at all.
            “Let’s go with that. All we have to do is decide on a signal before we leave.”

            Despite that I’ve agreed with him, Roswell still seems solemn.
            …It should be enough that I’ve noticed, for now.
            Like he himself proposed, if I feel that I’m in danger, I can always call silently to Gulcasa and have him defend me.

            “One final thing.
            “…Gulcasa, I’d like you to conserve your Reality Marble unless there is no other choice.
            “It’s too much of a danger with its high prana cost; I’d prefer that we save it for the final battle if at all possible.”
            Even though I’m staring at him sharply.
            Gulcasa returns my stare and doesn’t answer me for a while.
            “…Yeah, okay.”
            …He’s saying that, but I’m sure that there’s only so far that he’s willing to listen to this particular order.
            As soon as he thinks I’m in too much danger, there’s a chance he’ll use it on his own again, and it’s not really worth a Command Spell now.
            So it’s probably better to just keep him working with Yggdra in tandem, as together they will be more than a match for Avenger and can probably compete with the still-unknown Caster.

            …After that, all there is to do is taking care of details while the sun creeps towards the horizon.
            Roswell has ideas about the route to patrol that I know are foolish and need to be discouraged, and after that there’s a light meal to fix and another discussion about what kinds of hand signals would be discreet enough but noticeable enough while we are both still concentrating on our Servants’ battle.

            It’s sundown.
            …With our plan in mind, we lock up the house and leave.

            “—”
            As soon as I step out of the bounded field and into the street, I know that something is very wrong.
            The texture and taste of the air itself is fundamentally different, almost bloody, and the street is unnaturally silent, with not even a single light turned on.
            “—”
            It’s difficult even to breathe, and with the streetlights fluttering like jellyfish, I feel almost as if I am underwater.

            …I look towards the others, but Roswell seems just as anxious and wary as I am, and both Gulcasa and Yggdra scour the darkness with sharp eyes.
            It seems that this development has taken everyone equally by surprise.

            It’s like there’s nothing breathing.
            The streetlights are flickering like illusions, and none of the nearby buildings are lit up at all.
            Even though there are still a few faint streaks of lighter blue on the horizon, it’s night.
            …Which means.

            “—Oh good, so you decided to come out after all.”
            A voice with a friendly tone calls.
            Footsteps.
            Out of the dark at the end of the street, Avenger’s Master appears.

            “—”
            Immediately.
            Gulcasa and Yggdra both blur momentarily and step into their Servant clothes, both gripping their weapons.

            At the end of the road.
            Past the backs of the two, I can see the witch Yellma striding towards us in an unconcerned manner.
            She smiles like a spider and taps her shoulder with the fan she carries.

            “—If you hadn’t come out on your own, we would have had to break in, you know?”
            Nonchalantly.
            She approaches us as if she has not a care in the world.

            “The people around here had better not be dead.”
            Roswell speaks a cold warning.

            “—Of course not.
            “Well, I had certainly considered feeding them to my pitiful Servant while they sleep, but rules are rules, you know? I don’t want to have my reward taken away from me because of something like that.”
            She snickers.

            My body sinks naturally.
            …Something is off.
            “Goodness, those are words I never expected to hear out of your mouth.”

            The witch spreads her hands wide and shrugs.
            “Sorry to say, but there are some rules that just about anyone would follow. Even me.”
            Smiling like poison.
            “Well, that’s all well and good, so—go ahead, Avenger.”

 

            She appears.
            The black knight walks out of the night with a cold, disinterested expression.

            …At that instant.
            There is an intense, searing pain in my shoulder, a reaction incomparable to the pinpricks of Yellma’s approach.
            “—”
            Yggdra is already moving to confront Avenger, lifting her sword up.
            But Roswell’s attention, and mine, is on the scenery around us.
            …That reaction.
            There is “another enemy” hiding here somewhere.

            Just that thought—is so frightening that I almost lose my mind.

            Footsteps.
            Faint footfalls like bells.
            On the other end of the street, something white emerges from the darkness.

            “Berserker, deal with the other enemy—!”
            As soon as my mind is made up, I shout.
            …Even though Avenger is no second-rate Servant, Yggdra’s power should be enough to deal with her.

            “—”
            On my orders, Gulcasa runs.
            Flat to the ground with his hair whipping up behind him like fire, he rushes towards the enemy in white—!

            There is a terrible crash of steel against steel.
            It comes from in front of me, in the direction Gulcasa ran to confront the final Servant.
            The sparks and the burst of magical energy light up the dark street.

            Standing there,
            …is a tall, winged woman in white armor.
            She holds out the weapon in her hands, an ornate staff, and blocks Gulcasa’s scythe along its haft to prevent his blow from reaching her.
            “—”
            Her eyes don’t hold any emotion and stare at Gulcasa with flat enmity that borders on boredom.

            I recognize Caster’s form.
            She’s an angel, so of course there’s no way that I could mistake it.
            The kind of armor that she wears, and the weapon that she carries—are all the type of equipment that is given to the Guardian Angels, archangels who defend the gates of Asgard from outside attack.
            And Caster’s body is brimming with prana, so much so that she seems to steam with the power packed into her form.

            “—”
            Gulcasa leaps back from her.
            As if testing the waters, he jumps back lightly and glares at her.

            The worst possible situation.
            Avenger and her Master are on one side, and the still relatively unknown element of Caster on the other.
            …And this feeling.
            I know for certain that Caster’s Master is watching this conversation from nearby, and that simple awareness is enough to put my every nerve on edge—

            “If you hand over the vessel, your end will be quick and painless.
            “So how about it, Master of Saber?”
            “—”
            Roswell doesn’t reply to her.

            “…Nessiah.
            “If worse comes to worst, forget about us and just run.”
            He says so in an undertone.
            …Huh, don’t talk as if I wouldn’t consider it on my own.
            But I know that it is useless.
            Even if I were to escape and run away right now, leaving the Servants to battle behind me—I would only be found later.
            And if I left Gulcasa alone in this situation, it’s probable that he would simply be killed.

            “—Please.
            “If he tried to hand me over to you, I’d kill him and detonate my own heart on the spot out of disgust.”
            I say so loud enough for my voice to carry to the enemy.

            “Aw, well that’s too bad.
            “—But hey, this time you’ll have no choice but to open it for us.
            “We’ll definitely have enough Servants killed after this battle.”

 

            And, at that time.
            Thunder splits the air, a noise so loud and terrible that it feels like my ears are about to start bleeding.

            “—”
            I cry out, but my voice is blotted out by the great sound, and against the spells that Caster and Yellma have cast, my own shields are like wet paper.
            The earth rumbles underneath my feet, and I start to feel dizzy.

            Past Roswell, Yggdra and Avenger are fencing with their mutual intent to kill sending sparks into the night.
            Avenger’s greater reach and Yggdra’s greater force make the pair of them matched fiercely, and they dance back and forth across the shaking pavement with enough force to crack it, neither surrendering even a step.
            Whenever there’s a gap open, Roswell uses the leverage to cast narrow-range spells like Gandr towards Yellma, but she simply waves her fan and great tears open in the air to swallow Roswell’s attacks.
            Something about her magic is extremely different from before.
            …It’s more powerful, and it smells like ozone and hurts my head.

            “Roswell, do something about her, I have to—”
            I have to back up Gulcasa.
            Periodic stabs of pain are breaking through my shoulder and damaging my concentration.
            His defensive abilities aren’t enough to block or nullify her lightning magic, and as Berserker he doesn’t have innate magic resistance, so without my shielding, her spells are at the power level where even his life—

            “Even if you tell me that, I still—”
            Roswell complains, but I turn my back on him.
            …If I can’t block it, then I can at least attack and cancel it out.
            Caster spins her staff like a pinwheel, speaking out in the same ancient language I cast my own spells in.
            Her casting speed is about the same as mine, and even though she uses orthodox magic rather than invented spells, those shortened incantations make every spell cast a gamble.

            “—Aim for her staff!”
            That’s the only real instruction that I can give.
            “It’s a powerful artifact, especially as a Noble Phantasm, but with your strength, you should be able to damage something that fragile—”
            That’s really all the direction that I can manage.
            Every breath wasted to give orders is another spell that Gulcasa has to dodge on his own, forked lightning forcing him to roll to the side in awkward evasive maneuvers.
            The earth comes up to reach him as he twists his body, face twisted into an intense snarl.

            As befitting of a Guardian Angel, Caster is a wall of near-perfect defense, and Gulcasa’s attacks barely scratch her even when they manage to reach her.
            But at least if her offensive Noble Phantasm can be disabled, then it will be less of a risk to leave her to Gulcasa alone while I look for that man—

            “Go ahead and strike her down—!”
            Roswell’s voice cuts the night, but from the shouting voices, it appears that it’s merely encouragement and that Yggdra isn’t close enough to make a decisive blow.
            “You can use your Noble Phantasm, so hurry and finish this quickly, or else—”

 

                        “That won’t be necessary.”

            A cold—and sardonic voice speaks above the rest of us.
            My blood turns to solid ice in my veins, and my balance wavers.
            The runes engraved into my body underneath my skin crawl and dig into me, spreading their poison and making the five lumps of prana gestating in my flesh pound like hearts.
            I’m instinctively holding a hand to my mouth to keep myself from vomiting at the sound of that voice.

            White light.
            A tear in the very air opens up, laser lancing down from atop that man’s perch in a bright white wall.

            Avenger swears and leaps back.
            But Yggdra is unlucky, and is caught in the direct line of fire, bowled over with a shriek.

            White-faced.
            Roswell reaches out and casts healing magic.
            But the figure of the princess pulling herself up on her sword is still wavering back and forth on her feet, her clothes and skin burnt in patches.

            “Watch where you’re aiming, you dumbfuck!”
            Avenger shouts towards the unseen attacker.
            She is answered not in words, but in dry laughter.

            Roswell swears softly.
            “I can’t keep up with this rate of damage—Saber, I’m sorry, just disappear for now!”

            Yggdra bows her head in pain and dematerializes.

            …That’s it.
            My body is shaking all over.

            Roswell is biting his lip.
            He turns to me and lifts his hand.

            “Nessiah, I’m so sorry.
            “I couldn’t protect you, so—this is the least that I can do.”

 

            “—Get back into the barrier.”
            As he points his finger at me in the shape of a gun, I gather my nerves and speak.

            “What?”

            He stares at me blankly.
            “—The reason that they were waiting here for us.
            “It’s not just because they wanted to set up a good trap, it’s because they couldn’t break through the boundary field.
            “If you go back in alone, it should buy you time.
            “But if you act like an idiot and try to kill me here, you’ll just become the next vessel in my place, do you understand?
            “Heal her, and find me, and keep my Gulcasa alive—”

            While he’s standing with a look of blank shock.
            I grip my shoulder with all my strength.

            “Upon this Command Seal do I order thee.
            “—Berserker, take Roswell to safety inside the heart of the barrier, and stay there—”

            “Nessiah, what are you—”

            The horror in Gulcasa’s voice is nearly a scream.
            …I’m sorry.
            I can’t say it out loud and betray my weakness.
            As long as he’s alive.
            …As long as Gulcasa is alive, there is still the chance that he will find me, like before.
            But if he is killed in this hopeless battle, then everything up until now will have been for naught.
            I’m sorry.
            I keep—only hurting you, but this time at least it’s really for your sake as well.

            A crack.
            And my shoulder hurts as though the second mark is being torn out from underneath my skin, inch by inch.

            In the instant that Gulcasa touches down to seize Roswell.
            He stares at me with wild eyes so filled with emotion that they seem inhuman.
            …And in the next moment, he is gone, into safety.

 

            …Surrounded by enemies.
            With Caster and Yellma on either side of me.
            I narrow my eyes and try to stand steadfast.
            My heart is beating so intensely that I cannot even hear.

            …Rather than the approaching footsteps that vibrate through the broken ground and chip away at my sanity.
            I focus on the distant figure of Avenger, who stands observing this spectacle while biting her lip like she’s suppressing something.

            Through my peripheral vision I can see him.
            But because I cannot face him directly without everything collapsing, I keep watching her.

 

                        “—Well.
                        “You certainly led me on a merry chase, but this is quite far enough.
                        “It is well past time that you realize that you are mine to use as I please.”

            The hated voice speaks in a lazy-sounding tone.
            …It’s no good.
            My legs are shaking finely.
            My head is spinning and I want to throw up.
            …This is the only way, and I know that.
            But it’s impossible to ask me to simply return to the cold after remembering the sensation of warmth.

            I look only at Avenger.
            Her blue eyes are all that is clear in this warped world.
            …A thin thread of red makes its way down her chin as she breaks the skin of her lower lip.

            Just as I can finally feel the bloodstained membrane that is that man’s presence.
            White hands reach out to grasp my body, and with great pain comes merciful loss of consciousness—