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Vagrant Grail Cadenza

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(interlude 15-1)

            This is a story.

            An angel went to a war-torn world on orders to subdue its impudent residents.
            The angel was naïve, and was tricked into making a contract with a demon out of an insecure desire for power that could purify herself.
            The demon saw through her to the heart of her desire to rid herself of her most hated traits, and split her soul into two.
            The demon would keep the angel, the more powerful half, as his servant.
            The cast-off part of the angel’s soul could simply go on as it pleased, as it posed no threat to the demon on its own.

            …That—was how she was born.

            The other half of her had lived a very long life in Asgard, and had survived by fiercely repressing all her inconvenient thoughts and questions.
            And so when she was born, her thoughts were extremely clear.
            She had no love for the totalitarianism of Asgard, nor any love for the demon who had used her, and was thoroughly disenfranchised with both sides of the ancient conflict.
            …But as the splinter from the whole, her body was unstable, and the other side of her aimed to kill her.
            It wouldn’t be a problem if she had possessed adequate strength.
            After all, just looking at the angel who continually denied her a right to exist made her feel murderous.
            Unfortunately, she could not win in a direct confrontation as she was.

            When the demon had split the two of them apart, it had taken away the source of their power, the staff given to them by the gods as a sign of their station.
            Without the staff, the angel could not return to Asgard, and could not claim absolute victory over the other half of her soul.
            …But the angel was still the stronger of the two.
            As the servant of the demon, the angel had little to fear from the demon’s minions, which were in the midst of invading that world.

            She was not strong, and the demons would attack her if their paths crossed.
            If she could find the staff and destroy it, she would have an advantage over the angel when they finally faced each other.
            …But in order to last long enough to obtain the staff, she needed assistance.

            She cared little for the struggle between the humans and demons.
            But as a part of the demon’s invasion, the angel had fought with the king who ruled this human country, and unable to kill him, had torn his soul out of his body.
            That king appeared to be the descendant of a neutral human faction in the conflict between gods and demons, an Arbitrator with the power to contend with either side.

            That kind of power could more than make up for what she lacked.
            So she stole the soul in its crucible, and set it loose on the outskirts of the kingdom.

            The soul was only a soul.
            It possessed neither its living memories nor a complete conscious mind capable of making thought-out decisions, and could only wield its powers against what it deemed as its foes while following the trail of its body.
            But even though it couldn’t communicate with her, when she offered it her sword in exchange for its power, it accepted her terms.

            —Under attack by the demon armies, that world had been plunged into an endless night beneath an evil red moon.
            In the endless night under a carpet of stars, they traveled to the castle, a single path to two separate goals.
            The girl ran through the night with sword in hand, and never looked back.

            When the two reached the castle.
            There was a brief time when the soul of the king seemed to hesitate.
            It appeared that her companion still had lingering fears and uneasiness about regaining its former self.
            …That made her frustrated, and it made her angry.
            And she, who had had her own right to exist denied furiously enough times to make even her feel uncertainty, gave her ally a single piece of advice.

            “—Just focus on who you are now, and what you can do.”

            The past didn’t have any meaning.
            All that mattered was the ability to look forward and run forward without stopping—

            The two plunged into endless battle within the castle.
            Many times, they fought the angel who was her other half, and her path and that of the king’s soul diverged and recombined several times.
            She wasn’t able to find the staff.
            …But even so, there was something else she had gained.
            Her ally was trustworthy, accepted her for herself, and asked nothing of her but the faith and cooperation that she was willing to offer on her own.
            Here, at last, was a being that would take her on her own terms.

            The first time that the two made their way to the heart of the castle to confront the great demon god squatting there, they were hopelessly outmatched.
            All that could be done would be to escape, and come back again with greater forces and more power, but it was clear that only one of them would be able to do so.
            …It was funny.
            She was selfish and self-concerned, but without even thinking about it she moved to confront the demon god on her own in order to let the king’s soul escape.
            Telling him to go and find his body as quickly as possible, or else that world would be lost.

            Her body burned.
            When the king brought her back to herself, it was like waking from a dreamless sleep.

            —With greater force than before.
            They faced down the demon god together and struck it down.

            Finally.
            The only enemy left to face was hers.
            In the desiccated throne room that had been used as the monsters’ nest, the angel descended from the sky.
            She descended, holding the missing staff in her hands.
            …Whether her foe had possessed the key to her full powers all along or had found it in the time that her body and soul had been separated, it was impossible to know.
            And it didn’t matter.
            Because even if the guardian angel was in absolute peak condition, compared to the power of the king’s soul—then they should be even.

            But the angel did not immediately attack.
            Ignoring the girl who had come from the dark parts of herself, the angel turned directly to the king and spoke to him.
            …Congratulating him on his victory, and calling out with a proposition.
            With her staff’s power, the angel could return his soul to his body and thus restore the ravaged world to its former glory.
            The angel would do so if the king sided with her.
            …The angel conditioned the king, warning him that to do otherwise would be to doom this world to eternal chaos.

            —How ridiculous.
            Really, what a thing for the cause of all this to say—

            Even so.
            …She thought for a moment that she might be betrayed.
            This was the first being that had acknowledged her as having a right to live, but the king’s soul was more or less mindless.
            If told that it was for the sake of his kingdom, he might acknowledge her enemy based on his priorities and actually desert her—

            But the soul of the king remained at her side.
            The soul of the king remained at her side, and the souls of the hundred heroes at his back became as her army.
            The angel nodded emotionlessly as if in condemnation, and from the steeple at the highest tower of the castle ascended to the mouth of heaven’s gate.
            Such a large-scale battle as was about to occur might damage the world below.

            …The girl in black armor had been born from the halving of a soul.
            Divided, she and the archangel could not survive for long.
            Paths that, once diverged, would never cross.

            The girl raised her sword.
            Staking her unstable existence in battle, running forward without looking back once—
            That was the way she had always lived.
            It was the only path, and there were no regrets.

            …But her body and soul were nevertheless extremely unstable.
            At the end of a hard victory.
            She had won and she had lost in equal measure.

            With a collapsing body.
            She stepped over the corpse of the angel and raised the staff.
            With the very last of her fading power, she fulfilled the unspoken promise.
            …So that in the end, when her breath ran out, the king would have hands with which to support her.

            But just one thing was frustrating.
            …She’d fought to prove that she had the right to live.
            She’d fought so that she could live and be herself, but in the end, she would have no time other than the single endless night she’d run through with all her strength.
            In the same moment that her life had begun, it would end.

            She had wanted more time.
            …If there was anything to regret, that was it.
            But all she could do was smile bitterly and shrug a little, and then her body was already falling.
            She thought that maybe the king held her up, because the impact of the earth never came.
            Standing in the middle of the throne room restored to brilliant gold, with dawn filtering through the shattered windows.
            The center of a hundred heroes, buoyed up in their silence, greatest of all of them.
            She had fought and won, but the reward she had strained for would only be given to her halfway.

            This is a story.
            When the girl breathed out for the last time.
            Not even the king who held her, his greatest and most beloved knight, could determine whether it was in relief or bitterness or wistfulness for a promise unfulfilled—

(15-1 interlude out.)

            I dream a dream about a mountain of identical corpses.
            Women with white hair and red eyes.
            I dream a dream about a mountain of broken homunculi that all turn to stare at me in unison, a rictus grin on each flawless face.

            I dream a dream about standing in a sea of colorless mud.
            From the mud rise pair after pair of child’s hands, springing up on stretchy taffy limbs to clap cold and clammy against my naked skin.
            Tiny, delicate baby’s hands that all cup the distended flesh of my abdomen.
            My body is heavy and it is difficult to breathe.
            A lingering taste at the back of my throat like processed meat.
            It hurts between my legs, a pain like a pulse.

            I dream a dream where my body is swollen, distorted.
            I am alive, but decaying rapidly, and my bare nerves and rot-clotted veins are clearly visible through my transparent, desiccated flesh.
            The living corpse that is me, a brittle skeleton with a parody of cobwebbed tissue strung over it, is bound by burning steel.

            I dream a dream so disgusting that bile rises in me, but I cannot vomit.
            I dream a dream in which my abdomen is swollen and distended, pregnant with five faceless burning corpses.
            Every cell in my body cramps like a tide.
            The choir of my mitochondria clamor for me to expel the foreign substance.
            I want to throw up.
            With all of my power, I want to just push them out of me, obey the heretical letters written into my bones.
            But what shreds remain of my sanity inform me that the time and place are still wrong.
            That I cannot yet open the gate and give birth to it—

            I dream about white light.
            The light burns at my blood and my bones, and I want to curl up and hide.

            Three women are staring at me.

            We are standing in the mouth of a round hole in the world.
            The opening is very large, but the contents on each side do not spill over.
            Where before I was naked, I feel the pressure of fabric against my raw skin.
            The cloth is stiff and heavy against my body, as if it has been woven from fibers of spun gold and silver.
            The sleeves are long and nearly cover my hands, and the hem of the dress like a robe is too short to cover my thighs, conforming to the shape of my legs and ending abruptly.

            The small girl in the winter coat says that because I am not like them, they can only directly address me when I am in this place.
            They have long since crossed to the other side, but here in the place where traces of their Magic remain, they can speak to me even though we are on opposite sides of the gate.
            There are ages in her eyes despite her small stature, and her smile is the gentle smile that I imagine an older sister might wear.
            She says that even though I am an imperfect and makeshift device, I have done passably thus far, especially since I have not had the guidance of the mothers who came before me the way that a real cup would have.

            The woman in the long white dress looks at me with tender eyes and tells me that I must be strong for a little longer.
            That because like them I have a goal that I must reach regardless of the cost, I need to endure and bear the pain and the overwhelming urge to just push it all out.
            Her hands are warm and cold when they smooth out my hair and clothes, and leave soft trails of shadow that fade quietly away.

            The saint of winter walks toward me in long graceful steps like a queen, her face expressionless as marble.
            She places her golden crown upon my head, and with fingers like pliant stone she touches my skin through each of the seven rings in the dress.
            Stomach, navel, diaphragm, base of the sternum, center of the chest, clavicle, forehead.
            The two rubies and the pair of circular openings above them take on a powerful incandescence, and the remaining three each resonate with a soundless echo, as if my body has memorized the sensation of her fingertips.
            When she speaks, I do not understand her words at all.
            I do not understand them, but I can sense something in my body changing, as if she is directly instructing it without allowing my conscious mind to process the information and interfere or corrupt it.
            When I think like that, it feels almost as if I am being treated by a godly being or something naturally ranked above me as a life-form, and I accept her touch without complaint.

            The nausea is going away.
            Even if only temporarily, my body feels ordered, and even the twisted and abhorrent conglomeration of foreign prana inside me is organized and separate.
            This shining feeling.
            Aside from the heavy feeling like pregnancy and my body’s natural protest against the foreign objects, the only sharp pain is at the place where two spirits are slotted into a space where only one belongs.

            The saint of winter continues to work, reforming my body.
            As her hands move over me as though I am a patient on an operating table, the girl in the winter coat speaks.

            “—No matter what, you cannot hold ‘all nine’.
            “Even eight would be pushing it for a ‘natural living being’, so whether it’s at eight or at nine the process of birth will inevitably start.
            “The Dress of Heaven is only meant to maintain seven spirits anyway, and so there will be a time that the Mystic Code malfunctions.
            “So you have to settle things in the margin of time that you have before you have to push it out, okay?”

            I am surrounded by the three women and the scent of snow and pine in a distant silver country.
            My hands are held by the cool and careful touch of the woman in the long dress and the girl in the winter coat.
            In the instant that the saint of winter folds my eyelids down.
            I remember long plum-colored hair and a smile, and just for that instant something like understanding clicks into place.

            My body sinks back through the clear mud.
            A sensation like being enveloped in thin honey.
            But my lungs do not fill with anything but air.

            …It’s disappearing.
            All that remains is the “sense of clarity” and the scent of something cool—

 

            And I am awake.

            —The world spins around me.

            I am in a place that I don’t recognize, yet again.
            But unlike being moved to another house or waking up in the basement of an abandoned house, this place—
            Stone rubble pushed towards rock walls, and a high dome like the ceiling of a planetarium.
            Intense concentration of prana in the air, one of the most spiritually excellent places I have been in all the time I have been in Fuyuki.
            …My judgment of not recognizing this place—seems to be mistaken.
            “I” have never been here.
            But I know what this place is.

            As if to prove it, on the plateau beneath my suspended body, I can almost see the delicate interwoven glyphs with my naked eyes.
            At the distant center, far behind me, should be my “focus”—the meager “remains” of my original body.
            This is the cave beneath Ryudou, the focus of one of the ley lines of Fuyuki and the summoning place of the Holy Grail in the first and fifth iterations of the ritual.

            I can barely turn my head to examine the area.
            I am tightly bound—not with literal shackles this time, but in the grasp of that man’s power.
            It’s cold on my wrists like iron, and my arms and legs feel bruised.
            …My senses are still violated, and my sense of touch is warped.
            But at the very least, I can’t feel fluid on the skin of my thighs, and there is no outstanding physical pain inside me.
            …So, as far as I can gather, he hasn’t raped me while I was unconscious.
            Perhaps because he worried that it might interfere with my function as the Grail if my body were damaged too badly—but there’s no point in trying to guess what he might have been thinking.
            Now that I’ve catalogued my body and my location, it’s time to focus outwards and analyze my surroundings.

            I can sense the presence of two magi and two Servants on the earth beneath the plateau.
            Yellma and Hector seem to be conversing.
            …I’d thought as much before, but they appear to be getting along like a house on fire.
            Why do my careless bad premonitions have such a knack for becoming reality?
            …I complain inside my head like that while I’m still scattered.

            Caster stands like a monolith beside them.
            She guards her Master.
            Her presence as a magical being is intense, but her will appears to be very mild.
            Aside from hostility towards Avenger, I can only feel obedience from her, like a well-trained guard dog.

            Avenger herself, the presence with the least vigor amongst the four distant silhouettes, is also the most unsettled.
            She stands apart from the other three, like an animal making its hair stand on end out of the need to seem more threatening.
            Sometimes, I can feel her gaze on me.
            …More and more, it seems as though she is discontent with her surroundings.

            The cave is wide and grand.
            The magical atmosphere is like the atelier of a proud clan.
            It feels a little bit like my own temple used to.
            But despite the spiritual atmosphere, the cave is filled with rubble around the edges, and even the plateau used as the dais for the Heaven’s Feel is scored with cracks and craters as if there was a cave-in.
            Most likely, this is damage from the end of the last war.
            …It seems that even Hector had to do a bit of excavation before he was able to come in here and replace the old Einzbern core with my bleached and brittle skeleton.

            My breathing is rickety and my body feels faint.
            Even drawing in air feels a little like swallowing needles.
            …It must be this place.
            There’s a pulse rising up from the marrow of my bones, and even though I know that it has nothing to do with my physical flesh, there’s a crawling sensation along my skin.
            There aren’t actually fetal corpses stuffed into my abdominal cavity like in my nightmares, but it still feels as though my stomach is contracting.
            I’m just in extreme discomfort rather than pain, but all of my instincts are telling me that I need to just push it all out right now.
            “—”
            It’s this place.
            Unlike the basement that Yellma took me to in her abduction attempt, this is one of the four cardinal sites throughout Fuyuki where the Grail can open.
            This isn’t the correct altar for this war, but theoretically the Grail can still open here.
            …No, the fact that we are here above the Grand Grail itself means that if I relent, I am fairly certain that I can get the gate open enough to expel the prana of the Servants I have absorbed.

            —So push it out.

            I can’t push it out.
            Instinctively, I know this.
            Intellectually, I know this.
            Even if I open the gate right here, another Servant needs to die before the contents of the Grail can produce anything like the granting of a wish.
            Hector has me here because he wants the gate to Akasha open, and right now I can’t accomplish that.
            I could empty the contents of the Grail despite that to frustrate him, but I can’t do that.
            I need that power for myself.
            Therefore, it would be putting the cart before the horse if I were to prioritize spiting that man and release the contents.

            But still, I want to push it out.
            It will be hell on my body and it will be enough physical trauma even to rewrite my mind, but I want to hurry up and get rid of it.
            I don’t want to carry this terrible weight that doesn’t belong in my body for even a minute longer than I have to.
            With the opportunity to expel it, my nerves are screaming at me.

            —So push it out.

            …I can’t do that.
            Sweat is starting to stand out on my skin from holding the urge in.
            In my condition right now, it’s like individual hot irons are being dragged against my skin.
            …Damn.
            It hasn’t yet been two days since I last burned off the overabundance of prana by giving it to Gulcasa to consume, and my condition has already become aggravated again.
            I’m still lucid because the Servants’ prana isn’t in a tangled mess inside me anymore, but is rather ordered and separated properly inside the container.
            But as long as I still have so much extra prana and I can’t even turn off my own Magic Circuits, the pain of having my senses violated by being at odds with the world is going to eat away at my rationality.

            I want this foreign substance out of my body.
            That won’t solve the entire problem because this incarnation itself is corrupted by Hector’s configuring me as the Lesser Grail.
            But getting rid of the Servants’ prana means that I will at least be much more comfortable.

            It is insanity to retain the Servants in my body in a place like this where I might expel them.
            To extend the obvious simile, it’s like a woman in labor being in a hospital but refusing to give birth.
            But at the same time, it is insanity to want to push it out.
            If this is labor, then the resulting human life would not yet be completely formed and would die, making all of this for nothing.

            “—”
            I expel my breath and bite my lip in frustration.
            This wouldn’t be so terrible if I weren’t in this place where my body is constantly urging me to push it out, push it out.

            …It may still be another day or so before Roswell finds where I am.
            Logically I know I should be able to bear it, and besides I am sure that Hector will want to move me to the correct location, but I still despair at the idea of having to bear this sensation until the time limit is about to run out.

            “—So you have awakened.”
            A hated voice speaks from below.

            Far away.
            Breaking his conference with the witch, the magus in dark robes addresses me.

            On his face is a thin, joyful smile, a crescent of white that flashes from beneath the shadow his hood casts.
            “—So kind of you to have joined us.
            “Well, struggle all you like.
            “Either your companions will find their way here and those two Servants shall become the sacrifices to complete the Grail, or they will not make it to the deadline and we shall simply have the Servants here become the final cornerstones.
            “You will not escape.
            “So, struggle as you please. Your bitterness will at least provide us with entertainment.”
            “—”
            His smile, a lazy expression that makes me want to vomit out my own intestines.
            From behind her scrolls, the witch laughs at me in a snide tone.

            And that is all.
            Not wanting to waste words with me, the two magi go back to discussing boring things like the Rule and the godhood that they aspire to.
            It leaves a nasty taste at the back of my mouth to ignore them, but I don’t have any choice.
            I don’t have any attention to spare for them right now, as I need to suppress my own instincts with all of my power.

            “—”
            So, when Avenger makes her way up the stairs to the dais with soft steps, it takes me by surprise.
            The magus, the witch, and the guardian angel all ignore her.
            Avenger is already a postscript to them, so weak compared to they three that they consider her to be beneath them and treat her like she serves no threat.
            So, despite being a Servant armed with a weapon, they allow her to walk right up to the dais of the Grand Grail.

            Avenger stands across the dais from me.
            Her eyes are narrowed and mutinous as she approaches, and her lips are a tight line.
            “—”
            She stands across the plateau, a distance that as a Servant she could cross in a handful of heartbeats, and looks up at me to meet my gaze.

            …With her looking at me like that, I wonder what a spectacle I must seem.
            My body is held up in a cross shape in midair, bound in invisible currents of powerful magic that in my condition I cannot easily dispel on my own.
            Hector had the decency to neither assault me nor strip me, but my clothes are surely streaked with sweat and dirty.
            …I really must look awful.
            Because there’s something close to pity but slightly different in her eyes when she looks at me, burning like the coals of her rebellion.

            All I can do is look back at her.
            It’s taking everything I have to stay sane and maintain control of my body.
            Like the vague sense of cool and calm that I can recall from my dreams, her eyes on me seem to restore a little of my sanity.
            Pools of cerulean like an offer of a handhold.

            “…I can end it before they can stop me.”
            She murmurs.
            In a voice so quiet that it won’t rebound off the distant cave walls and reach the ears of the three sentinels.
            “I can kill you so quickly and definitively that you won’t even feel a minute’s pain.”
            With agony in her words.
            She offers to end my suffering in the best and kindest method she knows.

            …In response,
            I drum up everything I have in order to give her my best smile.

            “…That’s all right.
            “—Killing me… wouldn’t give me any salvation right now.”

            Avenger continues to stare at me steadily.
            Her hands are in fists, and I can tell that she is ready to draw her sword and lunge forward to fulfill her offer at any moment.

            “But—if you wouldn’t mind doing me a different favor instead…”
            “—Yeah.
            “I can’t stand to watch this any longer, so if it’s in my power.”

            …Hearing those words.
            I breathe out, and do not let my smile fade.

            “Even I understand… that I can’t stay like this for long.
            “And I think that one of their reasons for hiding here, beyond the obvious convenience, is that it will be difficult to locate and get into.
            “So—if you can find my Berserker and the others, and bring them here as fast as you can…”

            Avenger’s eyes burn against me for a moment.
            Then she turns halfway—and before descending the steps, she inclines her head very slightly, just once, such a small gesture that I almost don’t trust myself not to have dreamed it.

 

            The next time I raise my head, I can’t see her anywhere.
            Caster is glancing towards the darkened tunnel that leads out of this place as if in curiosity, but as I watch, she faces forward again and closes her eyes dismissively.

 

            Time dilates.
            …Perhaps that’s not the best or most eloquent way of putting it.
            But the situation doesn’t change, and I completely lose track of my sense of time.

            If the Holy Grail is a gate, then to be completed it has to open.
            Like a cervix, that has to dilate to a certain width to allow the head of the child to pass through in order for birth to really begin.
            And, for the Holy Grail to open, the prana of the Servants has to be expelled from the temporary container I am through the natural preparations of the Grand Grail.
            It’s such a jumbled simile by now that I can barely keep track.
            I am a gate that is giving birth to a gate.
            That gate is the passage that can be reached through to obtain one’s wish.
            I don’t have the necessary power.
            But the “cervix” that blocks passage of the “birth canal” that is the natural pathway between me and the completion of the Holy Grail is slowly opening.
            It’s this place.
            And with the “cervix” slowly dilating, my body continues to demand that I flush this foreign prana out of me before it builds up any further and causes me to break down as a living being.

            I regulate my breathing.
            I try biting my lip and putting strength into the muscles of my legs so that I can distract my body from the horrible “need to push”.
            I’m violating my own instincts for survival.
            Frankly, I don’t care how badly my body is ruined because of being used as a surrogate uterus for such a ridiculous and incomprehensible thing.
            If there are consequences to face later, I will face them then.
            What is important to my “survival” as a being and not a mass of flesh and nerves and organs is that I wait until the Grail has ripened fully.
            But this—

            This is torture.
            It is torture far more effective than Yellma poisoning my senses with her prana could ever have been.

            It hurts.
            It hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts.
            It hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts.
            It hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts

            it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts
            it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts
            it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts

 

            I can taste blood where I’ve broken the skin of my lower lip.
            I feel faint.
            It takes all my will to just remain conscious, and I feel dehydrated, pathetic and pitiful enough to blow away in a slight wind like a crumpled-up dead leaf.

            It hurts.
            …It is unbelievably painful.
            The feeling of wrongness in my body is just as bad.
            This is not the detached and delirious feeling of my senses distorting.
            This pain is very different, too, from the sensation of being pushed down into positions where I have no leverage, better for that man to fuck me like a doll he wants to break.

            I had almost forgotten that fighting so hard to suppress an inevitable physical reaction could be so painful.
            …My head is swimming.
            It hurts.
            This isn’t being violated by myself, or being violated by the hands of another person.

            My body and mind are being systematically crushed by this ceaseless pain because I am being violated by “an inexorable force greater than me”.

            …I really can’t take it any longer.
            My body and mind are about to break down.
            The gate is dilating, and it feels like I’ve been crucified in a desert for a year without water.

            I wouldn’t mind the thirst so much if it would just stop hurting.

            —So push it out.

            I can’t do that.
            …If I began to do that, all the thousands of years up until now will be meaningless.
            I won’t even have a way to escape anymore.
            So I—

 

            …At that time.

            There’s a sound like a distant explosion.

            “—Caster.”
            Hector’s voice rises above the noise in a cold order, and the angel in white lifts her hands so that the great crash of dust and energy is deflected in a powerful shell.
            As the false holy land rocks with the force of the blast.
            I have raised my head and held my breath before I can realize it.

            The closed world splits wide open.
            A white swordsman blasts through the smoke with her Noble Phantasm in both hands.
            And Gulcasa cuts through the kicked-up dust with his blade, appearing out of the pale brown haze like fire catching along broken ground.

            …Immediately.
            The magus who desires godhood, and the witch who became his apprentice in order to distort reality to her whims, activate their magecraft as if to destroy the intruders who have disrupted the opening rite of their private ritual.

            But as Gulcasa and as Yggdra ready their weapons wordlessly, ready to throw themselves recklessly into this disastrous situation and fight the two monstrous magi—

            From behind them.
            A knight in black armor walks up casually to stand between the two, holding her own weapon.
            Avenger’s eyes never leave her Master, even as she comes to stand at the point before my Servant and my ally, the foremost prong of the attack.

            “Wha—”

            Yellma lets out an indignant voice.

            “Yo.”
            Avenger’s face splits in a grin with clenched teeth like hungry fangs.
            There is no mirth in her expression, but only hatred.

            “—You brought them here.
            “How dare a lowly Servant do something so ridiculous as to betray its Master—!”
            Yellma drops her guard and shouts at the top of her lungs.
            Watching from behind her, I can see that her entire spine is quivering with rage.
            I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s shouting so hard that spittle is flying, and I’m sure her expression is amazing to behold right now.

            “Honestly, Yellma.
            “Your Command Spell might technically grant you ownership of me, but you’re a piss-poor excuse for a Master.”
            Casually.
            Avenger lifts her chin, looks down her nose at the witch, and speaks her mind.
            …Perhaps it’s just out of respect for the two, but Hector does not interfere with his ally’s lecture, and he and Caster simply look on.
            …Judging by the posture of the other two Servants, Gulcasa and Yggdra are merely waiting for a gap to exploit before they rush forward and attack.

            “I told you, didn’t I?
            “—I’m not going to be working with that thing.
            “I’ll obey you begrudgingly because you’re my legitimate Master and have the Command Spell to prove it, but I won’t forgive anyone that tries to force me into an alliance with only that Servant.”
            Impudently.
            Avenger makes her grievance known, like reiterating an old warning.

            “Shut up!!
            “You piece of shit, you disgraceful little whore!!
            “You’re a Servant, you’re a doll that shouldn’t even possess a will, you’re nothing more than a powerless ghost that depends on my power to keep your weak self alive!!!
            “Puppets should act like puppets and dance on the strings of their masters!!
            “And I’ll make you so that you will never disobey another order from me again!!!”

            Yellma screams.
            She screams and screams like a madwoman, and from beneath her clothes comes a red glow.
            A crack like thunder splits the air and destroys the air in the cavern.

                        “—Ah—”

            A hard shiver runs through Avenger’s body.
            She hunkers down and her knees sink, as though a hundred-pound weight was rested against her back.

            …But when she raises her head.
            The expression on her face is one of mad joy.

                                    “—You kept me waiting for this, Yellma.”

            At that moment.
            Faster than my eye can track.
            The sword made of black thorns swings in a lovely arc, and Yellma’s head comes cleanly off of her shoulders in a crescent of blood.

 

            And from that instant.
            As the body of the witch crumples, the queen in white erupts forward, sealing off the gap and making the constraints of the battle expand and morph into a different shape.
            The front lines were a solid enclosure, a no-man’s-land that drew a perfectly straight line off at the mouth of the tunnel that leads outside.
            But, with one of the “fortresses” guarding the battle lines destroyed, the front line turns ninety degrees, and the battlefield is split between my left and right side with Hector at my left and the people who came to save me at my right.
            Calmly, Hector speaks, and colorless tentacles of magical energy rip through the air.
            Yggdra entangles with them, roaring like a bell as she cuts them away from her body.
            If Yggdra’s roar is like a bell, Gulcasa’s roar is like a devil.
            Fire explodes all around his blade as he crashes into Hector’s magic and struggles to cut the enemy’s throat.

            Avenger stands up.
            A Servant with no Master and only as long to remain in this world as she has prana in her body, she readies her Noble Phantasm like a baseball bat and stares directly at Caster like a challenge.

            And, at the same time, Roswell—who had been hiding in the shade of the tunnel—runs behind the backs of the Servants and traces a rune in the air, pointing his finger towards me.

            “Go—!!”

            His spell is as precise as a scalpel.
            The invisible bonds that hold me break, and my body drops through the air.
            I land on my feet, a painful shock that jars my bones, but even as my body sinks, I know I can stand.

            …Quickly.
            Quickly.
            Analyze the situation, take up the bet that they threw for me, pick out the chance for victory and run to seize it before anyone else—

            I breathe out.
            I expel the rotten air from my lungs and force my cramping legs to propel me to my full height, use the inertia to fling my right arm into the air and stretch out my fingers to the ceiling as far as they will go—!!

            “—Set!!!”

            In that moment.
            Every pair of eyes rests upon me.
            I scream the incantation with all the air in my lungs, compressing the hymn through High Speed Aria and reaching out with all my power!

            “Let thy body rest under my dominion, let my fate rest in thy blade!
            “If thou submittest to the call of the Holy Grail, and if thou wilt obey this mind, this reason, then thou shalt respond!
            “I make my oath here!
            “I am that person who is to become the virtue of all heaven.
            “I am that person who is covered in the evil of all hell.
            “Thou seven heavens, clad in a trinity of words,
            “Come past thy restraining rings, and be thou the hands that protect the balance—!!!”

            “—I accept!
            “From this moment my sword shall be with you, as your fate shall be with me!
            “—The contract is complete!!!”

            A windstorm explodes in the middle of the holy land.

            At the eye of the tornado stands Avenger, legs planted widely, gleaming with an absolute power and vitality that she has never shown all throughout this war.
            She is a perfect sword with no weaknesses, and her eyes shine silver as blue sparks crawl out from her body to envelop the entire cavern.

            At the same moment.
            All the pain and all the nausea in my body vanish like a bad dream.
            My right shoulder is on fire.
            It feels as though a red-hot iron is branded to my flesh even now.
            But it is a sharp, clean sensation.
            My body is light.

            “—”
            I take off with all the speed I can muster, and fly down the stairs three at a time.

            “Berserker, Avenger, just focus on Caster—!!
            “Push her back and use your Noble Phantasms, don’t spare any effort!!”

            Gulcasa roars in response, and I can hear Avenger’s voice raised in a high cackle.
            My Magic Circuits are unbelievably clear, and I put energy into my legs so that the sensation of my muscles tearing off is lessened.

            “Nessiah, what—”
            I seize Roswell by the waist and keep running.
            …Ugh, he’s heavy!
            I can’t carry or drag him for very long, and no matter that I’m no longer in pain, I’m still dehydrated and exhausted from all that torment and running on fumes.

            “Ah, ah—!”
            Yggdra’s voice rises in a shriek.
            Blown back by Hector’s attack, she staggers.
            The long feelers of his power have ripped her chest open to the bone, and she is bleeding heavily from her face, throat, and torso.

            “Saber, disappear—!”
            Roswell yells, and one of his Command Spells evaporates at the same moment that she vanishes from sight.

            “Hurry and get out, back through the tunnels!
            “We’ll follow you and seal off the path—”

            Roswell sets off running on my orders.
            I force my gorge down and spin lightning in my hands, putting the cavern entrance to my back as I face down Hector.

            “…Hmph.”
            With his rich blue priest robes fluttering in the wind generated by our battle, Hector holds out his staff and one gloved hand and looks at me with a bored expression.
            Even just looking at him affects me right now, and even though I’m in the best condition I could ever be in given the circumstances, my legs shake and want to collapse.
            …This is bad.
            I can’t win against him like this.
            Every instinct is telling me that without the backup of a Servant or some other advantage, he will take advantage of my own psychological trauma and crush me.
            And—both of my Servants are holding off Caster with all that they have, Gulcasa wearing down her defenses while Avenger tries to slice at her body.

            —All that there’s left to do is block the way and escape—!!

            “Gulcasa, Avenger!!
            “We’re breaking out of here, bring down the ceiling with everything you have—!!!”

            I scream.
            I sing out the notes every time I leap backwards, and stall Hector’s advance with raw bolts of power—!

            “Prominence—”

            Gulcasa swings his scythe.
            Beams made out of molten fire score the ceiling of the false promised land, and huge chunks of rock rain down.

            He returns to my side as if to shield me, even as Hector bats away my offensive spells like a duck shaking water off its back.

            In the distance.
            Caster is preoccupied shielding herself and her Master from the threat of the cave-in.

            And as Gulcasa and I duck into the mouth of the escape tunnel.
            Avenger presents us with her back and raises her sword at her side.

            …Something about her posture is so arresting.
            Her hair curls upwards madly and the greatcoat of lace that spins out from beneath her armor flutters through the air as power resonates into her body from the earth.
            In the moment that Hector moves forward as if to attack her.
            She stabs the very tip of her sword into the ground and leaps up into the air, as if balancing herself on the stone in its pommel.

            She curls her body inward for a moment, and like a rose blooming,
            a great pair of midnight-colored wings erupt from her back.

            Standing in the air.
            The black angel lifts up her hand, and her sword leaps from the ground to sing into her grip, a small and satisfying sound as the metal impacts the padded palm of her gauntleted hand.

            She sings.
            She calls out the name of her ultimate attack, and swings her sword downwards in a perfect crescent curve—

                        “—Eradication!!”

 

            The chamber of the Grand Grail erupts.
            Like an electrified grid, the ground explodes with dancing violet electricity, and from the ceiling rains down a great pillar of black light.
            Within that great explosion.
            Hector and Caster’s silhouettes are visible for an instant, and then they are buried behind a great wall of rubble.

            Avenger’s wings disappear in a great rain of purple feathers, and her body falls to the ground.
            She staggers.
            Pain plays along my right shoulder like fingers on the keys of a piano.
            Avenger is barely holding herself up with her sword, breathing hard, choking on the dust her attack has kicked up and unmoving—

            “Come on—”
            Gulcasa is yelling to her, but she does not move.
            And so.
            My own legs are shaking.
            I don’t want to go anywhere near that place again, but I push myself forward two and a half yards and seize the black knight by the arm.

 

            We run.
            We run.
            We run.

            The ground is terribly slippery, and foul with something like the remnants of a congealed curse.
            The cave is dark and its air tastes foul, like death.
            But even though it feels as though I will inevitably trip and shatter my body against the stone floor, I hurtle forward.
            Even though I have energy and my body feels light, my legs are screaming with the exertion it takes to keep moving.
            I’ve been stationary for too long, and am not used to the intense exercise anymore.

 

            But despite that, Gulcasa pulls me and Avenger after me, and like a flying arrow, we emerge from the darkness of the cave and onto the forested base of a mountain, underneath a sky that’s like an umbrella of stars—!

            Roswell stands under the night sky.
            Roswell stands pale-faced and hugging himself, as if he was too worried even to pray for our survival.
            But his eyes are wide at the sight of us, and there are high spots of color in his cheeks.

            …Ahh, it’s no good.
            I slow down to a walk, and nearly collapse as Avenger lets go of my hand to brace herself with hands on her knees.

            “—Just for the sake of it, we should destroy the cave mouth too—”
            But even though I say so breathlessly, Roswell shakes his head as if to say that he doesn’t have the energy.
            I might have enough power to detonate it, but my limbs are jittery and don’t want to behave.
            Gulcasa reaches out and lifts me up into his arms.

            “—We can think of something once we get further away, so come on—”

            Climbing downwards.
            We make our way to the road, and it’s all we can do not to collapse right there.

            “—You’ll have to help me after this.”
            I raise myself to my full height and draw an arc in the air.
            This would be easier if I had my spellbook, but that should still be back at Roswell’s place, and all I can draw on is what I have with me.

            The sky is not even overcast.
            But I charge the ground with power all the same, creating a single lightning bolt that reaches all the way up to the heedless heavens.
            It begins to crumble the mouth of the cave.
            But, it seems as though I’ll need one more strike to really bottle them up for long enough that we won’t be tracked whenever they finally escape.

            I gather up all the rest of the power in my body.
            I’ve started to sway on my feet, and I might collapse in the next breath, but this must be done decisively.
            And I cannot ask my allies to do this for me, not when I’ve exhausted them so much for my sake already.

            …But the heavens weren’t heedless, it seems.
            There’s an answering bolt that rains down out of the clear sky and crushes the mouth of the cave completely.

            Maybe it’s from the relief.
            My legs fold.
            Before my body can hit the ground—I am supported by three different pairs of hands.

            “Oh—”
            When I look up dizzily.
            There’s a parabola drawn against the stars, soft purple and black lined with red like some kind of inverted shooting star.
            From this direction.
            …It could almost have been launched from the tall hill not far from here, a hill with an Eastern-style mansion built on top.

            …No, let’s stop thinking about this for now.
            I think I’m the only one who’s noticed the arrow fired as if from heaven to have mercy on our exhaustion, so let’s leave it at that.
            Gulcasa is looking down at me with tenderness and worry.
            …Besides just him, Roswell’s hands are beneath my body holding it up too.
            And Avenger is also holding on to me at the waist.

            Three pale, dirty faces.
            …I let out a breath and smile at them.
            “—I’m all right, just a little bit thirsty.”

            Gulcasa sighs like I’m ruining the mood.
            “Knowing Roswell, he’ll probably be carrying his wallet or something.
            “So is it okay if we stop by a vending machine or something on the way back to the house?”

            There’s nothing I can really do but laugh.

 

            We walk down the pale midnight streets, passing underneath lamps.

            “…Is Yggdra all right?”
            Finally, I’m able to ask.

            “If by all right you mean that she’s still alive.”
            Roswell lets out a white breath.
            “If she stays in the summoning circle for all of tonight, then she should be healed enough on the outside to manifest again tomorrow.
            “But I don’t know if she’ll be able to fight in time for the deadline tomorrow night.”

            “…We can cross that bridge when we get there.
            “For now it’s enough that we all made it out breathing.”

 

            “Wait here.”
            When we finally make it to a vending machine, Roswell directs the three of us to sit down on a bench while he goes to wrestle with it.
            “Is there anything in specific you’d like?”
            “—Anything is fine as long as it’s cold and it’s drinkable.
            “I really am dehydrated, you know.”

            The night air feels pleasantly cool rather than cold for the first time, whether because of all that exertion or because it’s really starting to warm up.
            It’s still February and will be for a while, but spring isn’t that far off.
            I sit with Gulcasa on one side of me and Avenger on the other and watch Roswell, and despite everything, it feels really quite peaceful.

            “…All that noise about how I should get a new Master, and you never really made it clear that you were actually doing any offering.”
            As I think that.
            Avenger leans back and complains with a smile on her face.

            “It was rather spur-of-the-moment, honestly.
            “…Ordinarily, it would be the height of folly to try to support multiple Servants, after all.
            “If I’d known that it would make things that much easier on my body, I would have tried to do this much sooner.”
            “…Isn’t it hard, though, with your own stores of prana worn so far down?”
            Gulcasa asks me in a soft voice.

            “It’s not.
            “I’m honestly at something like double or even triple my normal levels of prana thanks to the Servants inside me, but splitting all that extra energy between you two means that I’m functioning on almost a normal level.
            “On top of that, I had a little help learning how to organize the Servants inside me while I was in that place, and I think that it should hold for a while with some luck.”

            “…Whatever.
            “If anything, I’m glad it was you.”
            Avenger says that with her face turned towards the sky.

            …It’s like the other times that the three of us were together, back at the start of all of this.
            Maybe it’s just because she’s like we are, but with her at my other side, I feel safe.

            The three of us sit still and wait for Roswell.
            On my left shoulder, there is one Command Spell remaining, with the blurred remains of the other two around it forming the shape of a wing.
            And on my right shoulder are three more Command Spells in the same pattern, all three vivid and red.

            It makes me smile, a little.
            Because—it’s true.
            The wings that I was born with were carved out of my back long, long ago.
            But as long as I still have these people to support me—I can fly nonetheless.

            “My name is Meria.”
            She says this very plainly.
            When I turn to look at her, she’s expressionless, as if to present that it’s no big deal for her to say so.
            “…What?
            “For whatever reason you guys seem to be in the habit of calling Servants by name, and it’d be weird to be the only one called by my class in that kind of atmosphere.
            “Besides. If you’re my Master now, then you should probably know who I am and what I’m capable of doing.”

 

            …After that.
            Roswell arrives with a can of coffee for everyone, not just for me.
            The four of us sit on the bench and drink and stare up at the sky.

            We’ve bought ourselves just a little time.
            …As soon as we return, we’re going to have to reinforce the barrier with all our power again, and we will then have twenty-four hours or less to come up with a plan of action before going to the summoning site.
            But for right now.
            …I rest my head on Gulcasa’s shoulder and wait for the others to finish their canned coffee.

            I close my eyes.
            In about one more day.
            …In about one more day, this battle is going to reach its end—