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Vagrant Grail Cadenza

Chapter Text

            There’s a saying—or perhaps it’s a perception.
            …The idea is that for those upon whom fortune will not smile—if one crawls through the mud long enough without giving up, a miracle will be granted.
            If you have no luck but sufficient determination, the sky will surely clear one day.
            Even if it takes a hundred, or a thousand, or a million years.

            It is actually a recorded phenomenon.
            …A clumsy boy wishing to save others, creating within his own body an endless forge through the efforts of training.
            A poor swordsman without even a name, perfecting a theoretical technique to capture a fleeing swallow until the world itself deigned to grant him the Second Magic.
            Diligence has its reward.

            How much are you willing to sacrifice?
            —How many years are you willing to crawl through the mud for that distant goal, that vague premonition of a miracle that may just be a single flicker?

            I have lived what feels like a thousand lives.
            …I have felt death come for me suddenly, and I have felt death eat away at my body by inches, by every means a human mind can imagine.
            …But.

            ……I have “certainty”.
            You could call it false confidence or a bluff.
            But I know how powerful a thing it is to cling to hope beyond reason and push yourself beyond your limits even when you cannot bear it anymore.

            The mistakes have piled up over that time.
            …I don’t want to regret.
            If I regret my missteps when there’s still a chance, it would be like invalidating all the suffering that brought me this far.

 

            I was born in a cold, sterile place.
            …Those who gave birth to me attempted to push me into a conflict that I did not want.
            They tried to force me toward a death that I did not deserve, and attempted to invalidate the free will with which I had been born, and I rebelled against that.
            …Their retaliation left me helpless.
            I took risks, and set off running for a goal that I was too young and foolish to tell was mistaken.
            …Still, I clung to that goal.
            And it was lifetimes until I was almost able to grasp what I should have fought for instead.
            —But in my own confusion, I let that hope slip through my fingers and fell into a deep abyss.

            My heart lost its illusions there.
            My limbs lost their strength, my lungs lost their breath, and I who had been blind lost the means to see the light.
            I was emptied out and used as a tool the way I had struggled against.

            …But nowhere did I lose my will.

            Even if I fall.
            …Even if I take the long way, fall into the mud, and disgrace myself.
            As long as I still have my own will, I can gather the strength to stand and continue to run.
            Even if the wind burns my flesh away and leaves me with nothing.
            As long as I can still see the “possibility” of compensation in the distant horizon, I will not stop ever again.

            …I have my pride.
            And I know this time what I must aim for.

 

            “—There’s a use to which I can put you, at last.”

            That man said those words to me as though soliloquizing.
            And he told me about this place.

            …The war fought by means of pairing up with a Heroic Spirit, and offering your enemies one by one as sacrifices to fill the waiting chalice.
            Of course, that man surely seeks to prop up his own hubris with the reward.
            But the catch is that he requires the “power” binding me, the Third Magic of the gods.
            The breaker was removed from the cycle and must be restored.

            …The Magic Association that might have interfered with him cares little about Japan.
            …And he who has grown to dismiss me left gaps in his surveillance of me.

            And so I fled.
            —I have lived what feels like a thousand lives, and I have died what feels like ten thousand deaths.
            I have continued dragging myself inch by inch through the mud and not given up.
            …So this is my final chance, and I will not let it slip past me this time.

            There was a time when I could have had everything, and my hesitation destroyed that possibility.
            —I will not allow that to happen again.
            So that I will not fall under the surface of my own despair and the built-up regrets that I want to turn into my strength, I will continue to fight—

Chapter Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            So I just have to be careful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            —So this war is being conducted by outsiders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            I suppress another sigh and continue through the marketplace.

            “—”
            All right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “—”
            I take out my treasure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

            “—”

            Ahh.
            …The sun is almost up.
            It’s time.

            It takes a while to clear away the requisite amount of space as this place is rather small, but I still have enough time to complete the ritual when I finish.

            “—”
            I regulate my breathing and open the Revelation to the proper page.
            The book balances itself in the air above my open palms, and when I run my magical energy carefully over the pattern of the glyph, it is instantly transcribed onto the floor so that I am just standing on the edge.

            There is more resistance than usual when I open myself to my power.
            …Given what I am, there should barely be any resistance at all.
            I who was born in the age of gods am a natural remnant of the time when magic was a normal aspect of the world, and my using it does not violate the logic of Gaia the way that it would for a magus of this era.
            But the complicated glyphs underneath my skin and the “irregularity” inside me heat up and are irritated by my use of magic.
            I can’t really expect it to be easy, but—I can handle this.

            “Ye first, O silver, O iron.
            O stone of the foundation, O archduke of the contract.
            Hear me in the name of our great teacher, the Archmagus Schweinorg.
            Let the descending winds be as a wall.
            Let the gates in all directions be shut, rising above the crown, and let the three-forked roads to the Kingdom revolve.
            Shut. Shut. Shut. Shut. Shut.
            Five perfections for each repetition.
            And now, let the filled sigils be annihilated in my stead!”

            —Please.
            Please.
            If you’re there—
            If you can forgive me—

                        Ahh.

                                    I can—sense it.

            Tears run down my face.
            I can’t let my voice waver, but I can at least allow myself this.

            It is a sensation as though the one standing across the vast chasm from me has run to the edge and is holding out his hand as if to grasp mine firmly.

            As the summoner, I can create the “bridge”.
            With this heretical ritual, I can open up a path to that faraway place for a moment to pull a fully realized Heroic Spirit into the world of man.

            —I concentrate.
            It’s a fervent wish to the world that all my suffering up until today be fulfilled.
            Like a prayer.

            After this moment—I’ll do the rest with my own hands.
            So please—

            “Set!
            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—!!”

 

            If I am reaching out—
            Then in that moment space contracts, and it is as though that distant hand seizes mine powerfully.
            There is a sharp burn in my left shoulder as though I am being branded,
            and at the same a heavy shock like a blow throughout my heart and ribcage.

            I stagger.
            My eyes have closed on their own, and my body nearly loses its balance in the darkness of the shack as the earth rumbles.

            There is a sound.

            There is the heavy, familiar sound of armor.

            “—”
            When I open my eyes…

            There is a man standing at the center of the glyph.
            A tall man with brilliant scarlet hair that streams down to his ankles.
            A man with kind eyes the color of gold and a proud, carved face.
            He wears resplendent armor of deep red.

            He stands expressionlessly as if staring through me to my heart.

            …And.
            The beloved voice speaks—

            “I ask of you. Are you my Master?”

            …My voice won’t work.
            But I push the wide strap of the dress I wear off my shoulder to bare the fresh Command Spell engraved there.

            …He smiles.
            He smiles in a way that softens his features and hurts my heart with the warmth he exudes.
            “Then from this moment my blade shall be with you as your fate shall be with me.
            “—The contract is now complete.”

            I gather up all the courage in me.

            “—Gulcasa.”

            The Servant in red armor looks at me as if in surprise.

            “Do you—still remember me?”
            I can barely breathe, but I still force out the words.
            I can vaguely feel that my limbs are shaking, but I force myself to focus all my attention on the man before me.

            “—”
            My Servant—Gulcasa stares at me for a moment as if in a daze…, and then his lips bend for just a moment before he begins to laugh softly.

            “That’s got to be the most idiotic question I’ve ever heard.
            “—I would never forget about you, Nessiah.”

            …Oh.
            Whatever tension has been binding me falls softly away.
            For now.
            …Just for a moment, the Grail War can wait.

            I take a step forward and reach out weakly, and Gulcasa wraps both arms around me and holds me against his chest.
            It’s uncomfortable.
            His storied armor is, of course, hard steel, and the rivets are rough against my skin.
            The metal isn’t cold, but pressing myself against him like this is awkward.
            …But still.

            It’s very warm.

 

            …
            ……It’s been about an hour since that time.

            Honestly, I’m just a little worn out in a lot of different ways, and I’m a bit lightheaded from using up a large quantity of prana without being able to eat right away to make up for it.
            And now that I’m not actively using my power, it’s gone back to being terribly cold.
            Mornings and nights are the worst.

            But it’s not as bad as usual.
            If I were to be asked why—

            “—”

            It’s because my Servant is sitting next to me.
            …It appears that becoming a Heroic Spirit hasn’t changed the fact that Gulcasa has a naturally high body temperature.
            If examined by a normal human doctor, they would probably be amazed and left at a loss for words, as Gulcasa emits enough heat that a normal person would be incapacitated with a dangerous fever.
            But even when he was alive, Gulcasa wasn’t fully human, and part of the composition of his body is just that he runs a hotter temperature than one.
            It’s because of the heat of his blood, which is more than enough to burn an ordinary person’s unprotected skin.

            Even just sitting beside him, I’m warm enough to be able to cope with the bitter cold that’s plagued me up until today until it felt like my bones were growing brittle.

            Well, but that’s beside the point.

            Up until now, we’ve just been discussing the situation.

            “—So you’ve been summoned into the Berserker class.”
            It’s hard for me to tell which Servants have been summoned already and which classes are still open, and I don’t know if that will change once I’ve met those Servants or not.
            Gulcasa is a warrior with a lot of different talents, so he could have been summoned into a number of different classes.
            Rider would also suit him, and I think that if certain conditions were met he could also be summoned as a Lancer.
            …But because his “current self” doesn’t have the qualification of wielding a lance and his Noble Phantasm, which is a great scythe, was created by forging a scythe together with the lance he used to carry, his physical form and even his mentality might be returned to their state at that time.
            In the worst case his memory might even be affected, so I’m glad that awkward situation has been avoided, and I won’t bring it up unless Gulcasa speaks of it himself.

            ……Well, the gist of it is that he went through a great upheaval at that time.
            In various ways.
            But I suppose there’s no need to rehash the past when we’re here together now.

            Anyhow, Gulcasa nods as he sits at my side.
            The motion causes his long hair to flutter slightly through the air.
            “That’s right.
            “I think that this is what would be considered my optimal class, and because of what I am there’s no need to worry about Mad Enhancement.
            “That’s like an extra that can be switched on and off at your discretion.”

            —Mad Enhancement.
            This is the special ability of the Berserker class.
            In exchange for the Heroic Spirit’s reason, they receive a boost to their abilities and become a mindless puppet to their Master’s will.
           But because the burden of controlling and supporting the Servant is much greater when the Servant has no will, it is an exceptionally difficult thing for an ordinary magus to handle.
            Most of the early Masters of Berserker died from prana deprivation, and it took an especially powerful and well-trained magus to control the one summoned in the last war, it seems.

            …But even after being summoned into this particular class, Gulcasa retains his sanity.
            It’s like he said.
            Gulcasa isn’t human, and the same rules can’t be applied to him as to humans.
            A mostly-mortal hero who went mad a lot and is summoned as Berserker because of that trait is one thing, but a demon who has lived with madness in his veins is quite another.
            If circumstances were different, and Gulcasa were raised as a demon, what humans perceive as “madness” would be the natural state of his heart and mind.
            But he was raised as a human, with human values.
            From a human perspective, he is well versed in controlling his own madness.
            From a demon perspective, his behavior now is true madness.

            That contradiction seems to have worked for our benefit.
            Anyhow, Gulcasa will be able to change between his current state and a “powered-up” form with no reasoning and not even the ability to speak, only the drive to follow my orders, very easily.
            And I’m left with the responsibility of toggling that.

            “—Unless the situation calls for it, I suppose I’d rather have you with me as you are now.
            “You and I are already the strongest, so we should save things like that for when there’s no other choice.”
            Well, I’m speaking flippantly, but I wouldn’t want to take Gulcasa’s reason away without his consent, and I doubt he would enjoy that very much either.
            It’s also more practical to do this as the prana flowing from me to him is at a reasonable rate right now and would only become troublesome if we were to turn Mad Enhancement on.

            Gulcasa is watching me like he’s either suppressing amusement or enjoying himself.
            “—Nessiah, you shouldn’t say things like that.
            “For all we know, there actually could be another combatant stronger than me in this war.”

            “No.
            “—You’re the strongest there is already, and I’m supplying you with extra power, so it should be fine.
            “Well, I’m not naïve enough or arrogant enough to say that there won’t be any problems, and I know that one of the enemy magi will probably be trouble.
            “But all the same, I have the best Servant, so that’s one worry off my shoulders.”

            He smiles at me in a troubled way.
            “And you’re supposed to be the one who’s good at strategy here.
            “What am I supposed to do with you?”

            He complains very gently as if attempting to deflect my praise.
            …Honestly.
            Any problems we’ll face in this war will be on my end or be caused by the enemy’s abilities and plans. I’m not paying him lip service.

            I reach out and touch his face.
            …Even though he’s just a Servant right now…, his cheek is warm against my fingertips and very solid.
            “You should be good and accept it when people give you a compliment.”

            “—Heh.”
            He smiles purely.
            Underneath my hand, his cheek dimples slightly.
            …I’m relieved, and I can’t help but smile back.
            Gulcasa has to be like this.
            When I speak with him at times like this, it’s like all my pain softly evaporates into thin air.

            “…But even so, Nessiah.”

            “Hmm?”
            Gulcasa’s smile has fallen away and he is now regarding me with anxious eyes.

            “—It’s this place.
            “I always thought you were bad at handling the cold, so isn’t this a little unhealthy for you?”

            Those eyes are the eyes of someone who’s long since become used to overseeing the care of other people.
            If I called it a motherly personality Gulcasa might get embarrassed, but that’s the kind of thing it is.
            In life, it was a trait that made him a good leader, and he has a good memory for other people’s strengths and weaknesses. Moreover he’s very considerate of them.
            Even so, the winters in his country were awful and he probably has a lot of memories based on that kind of thing.

            “—Well, it’s not my first choice either.
            “But it’s the best option I’ve got, considering the circumstances.”

            Gulcasa says nothing, but continues to stare at me as if waiting for an explanation.
            “—The magus I mentioned earlier, the one who I expect to be a problem.
            “I’m trying to avoid his notice for now, at least until we have better footing in this Grail War, and because of that this place that I can create a strong boundary field around is the best place I could find.
            “On top of that, renting a house would require contacting the magus family in charge of this area, and I don’t have the money to do that to begin with.
            “—I barely have enough to pay for the necessities, and this is an old enough place that I think my freeloading will be overlooked for a while.”

            …Oh.
            That’s quite the face Gulcasa is looking at me with.
            I do kind of wish he’d stop that, as it’s difficult to bear the brunt of such openly worried eyes and the things I’m doing aren’t exactly admirable.

            “—And food?
            “I don’t think there’s much here, if anything.”
            “Well, you’ve got me.
            “—Food is one of the things that I’m just barely affording.”

            Gulcasa shakes his head.
            “Nessiah, that’s no good. If you half-starve yourself, how are you going to be in the condition to fight?
            “—Starting tomorrow, you have to get enough for a decent meal. Even if it’s raw ingredients that’s fine, I can handle the rest from there.”

            …That might be difficult.
            I’d rather not steal.
            Gulcasa would have a bigger problem with it than I would, as he’d be against it from a moral perspective whereas I’m simply protecting my pride.

            “You don’t have to worry so much.
            “When we go out tonight to try to locate other Masters and gather information, I’ll get something to eat then.”

            My Servant continues to regard me with a troubled face.
            …He sighs.

            The armor melts away from his body.
            Apparently he can materialize and dematerialize his armor and clothing at will, just like his Noble Phantasm, as it’s part of what he came to this world with.
            Anyhow, this leaves him sitting still in the long tunic, pants, and shirt he wears underneath the suit of armor.

            He holds out his arms to me without saying anything.

            “—What?”
            Gulcasa just looks at me.
            He puts his hands on my shoulders and pulls.
            It’s a very soft gesture.
            …If he were exerting any of his strength, he could knock me over easily.
            That’s not just using his strength as a Servant, but the basic power in his body.

            But he pulls at me as if trying to coax me closer, and so I let him draw me up against his chest.
            He folds both arms around me there, and my body curls up against his automatically.
            He’s tall as ever.
            If I fold my arms and legs in and duck my head, I fit easily against his chest.
            Now that I’m resting against fabric, it’s a lot more comfortable than before, and I can let myself relax against his body.
            He really… really hasn’t changed.

            “It’s not much.
            “But this should at least be better than only having that stove.”

            …It’s true.
            I can’t get too close to the stove.
            It’s hot metal and the actual heat only comes out of grates and pipes.
            Gulcasa’s body heat is warmer than what that machine gives off, and furthermore he wraps himself around me as if trying to share it.
            I can relax against the softer texture of cloth and the flesh behind it.

            …I can tell that I’m smiling.
            I can’t help it.

            “—There’s really nothing to be done with you, is there?”
            I don’t expect an answer, and Gulcasa just tightens his hold on me slightly.
            The warmth makes me drowsy, and I close my eyes.
            It should be all right to rest for just a bit, since there are still hours to go before we actually have the opportunity to patrol—

 

            …Well, I think that, and then when I open my eyes next the sky is already stained orange.

            I’m fairly sure I drifted off, and as if to confirm the theory, my body is very heavy and I have a groggy head like my senses have been dulled.
            “—You should have woken me earlier.”
            I complain, but my weighty limbs aren’t obeying me properly and I want to go back to sleep.

            “You’re cute when you’re sleeping, so I didn’t want to.
            “Besides, didn’t summoning me cost prana? I wanted to give you the chance to recover it before we head out.”

            “Mm, that’s true, but…”
            I don’t feel all that different from before, aside from the fact that I’m tired and my body is very heavy.
            …It’s probably that.
            I wasn’t aware of my tiredness until I actually fell asleep, and now my body wants more of it.
            Well, I don’t think spending that much time in captivity and sleeping have been good for my internal rhythms, but that’s my own problem.
            Even sitting up, it’s really comfortable to be lying against Gulcasa’s body, so my old bad habits want to kick back in and leave me unable to actually wake up at all.
            “—”
            I stretch as if to try to get my blood flowing, and it doesn’t work.

            “Heavy sleeper as always, I see.”
            Gulcasa’s arms are loose, apparently so that I can stand if I want or just lie back against him and indulge myself.

            “—Hush.”
            I hate to do it, but I start to drag myself up.
            …The air is even colder now that it’s actually a shock against my skin, and I try to suppress the shiver that runs through me.
            “The war hasn’t started yet, and this is a good opportunity to show you the town before we actually have to navigate it tactically.”

            …No, it certainly hasn’t begun.
            By my count, there’s still… two seats left.
            Apparently one more was claimed after I summoned Gulcasa.

            “…I have to be careful not to address you by name in front of our enemies.”
            I don’t know that any of the other Masters will have the same problem, and it would be embarrassing to be given away by my own slip of the tongue.
            …Well, the sole fact that he’s a sane Berserker might be clue enough to give his identity away, but I still don’t want to hand our enemies any free help.
            It would be quite the disadvantage if our enemies were able to specifically research how best to defeat us based on Gulcasa’s abilities.

            Gulcasa himself seems unconcerned.
            “When we go out I’ll have to erase my form anyway, since I doubt I’ll fit in with the people of this age given my looks.
            “It should be fine as long as you don’t talk to me when others are around.”

            …That is a problem.
            Honestly, I don’t like that.
            It’s my personal hang-up, but even if I can sense him near me, I don’t like the idea of not being able to see Gulcasa when we’re out together.
            If we purchased him clothes from this era it should be fine, but I think I’d only be able to afford one set of clothing for him, and that would cut severely into the money that I have set aside for food.
            …Well, in any case it’s no good debating this kind of thing today.
            I’ll have to weigh my options later.

            “—At any rate, we should go.
            “The sun is setting, so we may not get back until late if we really do make our rounds through the entire city.”

            I have vague plans of just finding good vantage points if possible, given how my body is, but…
            Anyhow, there’s the question of food as well.

            We depart the shack, and Gulcasa erases his physical form as I close the boundary field.
            The first stop will be the marketplace.

 

            ……But.

            “—Well.
            “Would you call it lucky or unlucky at a time like this, I wonder.”

            The woman with long silver hair who stands before us on the Miyama side of the bridge is definitely a Master.
            Even if our close proximity wasn’t sending pain through my Command Spell insistently, I can vaguely sense the presence of a Servant nearby.

            “Oh.”
            She’s making an annoyed face and crossing her arms.
            “Here I thought we’d obtained some easy prey, but you seem like a fairly powerful magus.
            “—Don’t tell me that we’ve actually run across an enemy already?”

            “Well, the war itself has not yet begun.
            “—We’re still waiting on two.
            “I’ll engage you if you really want to play, but I’m telling you right now that that’s unwise.”

            I can’t pass judgments on her Servant as I can’t see it.
            But I’m certain that my magical ability far eclipses this woman’s.
            We’re at a bit of a disadvantage because we can’t dodge left and right, but if I have Gulcasa shield me until I can get off the bridge and into the park grounds the situation will even itself out immediately.

            “I’ve got it.”
            I hear Gulcasa’s voice close to my ear.

            “—Well, even if it’s not quite what I wanted, it’s close enough to the starting line to count towards the total of deaths, right?”
            The woman says so in a bored voice.
            In her hand, she holds a fan.
            She taps it against her shoulder as if considering her options to herself.

            “I see you don’t care about taking risks.”
            …Ahh, so she’s the foolish sort.
            Honestly, if we were to do battle here and one of our Servants were to die, that Servant’s prana may actually be delivered into the waiting vessel.
            But with the ritual not fully begun, it’s stupid to push your luck that way if you really do want the prize.

            “Dead enemies are dead.
            “—I won’t let you run away.
            “Avenger.”

            …Like smoke clearing, the air parts in a haze around the form of a woman in armor.
            The armor is a purple as deep as midnight, and is woven of intricate metal designs.
            A dark translucent veil flutters around her body, and her long hair curls up in the wind.
            There’s a sword in her hand.
            And despite the sullen look in her eyes, the Servant’s sword is filled with killing intent.

            I sigh.
            “—If there’s no choice, then.
            “Berserker, convince these fools to retreat, please.”

            Gulcasa steps out of empty space to place himself between me and the enemy.
            He is wearing his full armor and holding his long-poled scythe in his hand.
            Moonlight shines down upon the armor that’s stained blue in the darkness, lighting it up until it’s almost white.

            He stands in silence for a moment as if gauging the opponent, and then rushes forward lightly to clash against the enemy.

            “Hah—”
            Avenger meets his charge with a heavy swing of her sword.
            Even so, she is pushed back slightly by the amount of force Gulcasa exerts, her feet sliding on the bricks beneath them.

            In that moment, I too move down from the narrow walkway of the bridge and alight upon the cobbles of the park.
            I run to put distance between myself and the water, and gather power to my hands as Avenger’s Master turns to follow me with the fan she holds.

            “—”
            I call out and trace a line in the air.
            The burst of energy like a lightning strike hits near the enemy Master’s feet.
            Of course, if I wanted to hit her, half her body would be burnt off and rotting right now.
            It’s a warning shot to tell her to retreat this second if she actually wants to survive.

            I can see the glow as she starts up her Magic Crest as if to respond to me.

            …And between us, our Servants continue to strike at one another.

            Avenger’s sword arm is true and her intent to kill is powerful.
            She moves like she’s dancing, and her attacks are reckless and unrefined but have a kind of wild charm to them.
            She’s a seasoned warrior who’s attempting a killing strike with her every blow.
            But—

            “—”
            That can’t possibly compare to Gulcasa.
            His armor dispels the attacks that aim for his body, and he parries her away with his scythe, pushing her back and back into a range more favorable for him.

            A scythe is an unwieldy weapon in hands that don’t know how to use it properly, but it is extremely powerful.
            It can be used as a counter to most types of weapons, but because it’s impractical to do all the training required to wield one correctly, it’s not commonly used as a melee weapon.
            But in the hands of one with that training, it’s a polearm with few weaknesses.

            Gulcasa uses his height and the force of his arm to spin the pole and get great force behind the blows, and he is continually knocking Avenger backward without even bringing out the true power of his Noble Phantasm.

            Essentially—
            —They are on a completely different level from each other.

            Avenger must know that she’s outclassed.
            But all the same, she continues to attack.
            She fights against Gulcasa with a lively expression that’s completely unlike her sullen face from when she first appeared.

            “—This is nice.
           “For being told to fight a Berserker, I was expecting to just cut down a rabid dog, but you’ve got pride and skill.
            “I’d even call this fun.”

            She talks like that in an airy voice while fighting hard.

            “—You, too.
            “What with your Master’s attitude, I wasn’t expecting an enemy with honesty in their blade.”

            Gulcasa replies.
            …Well, it’s him, so I’m sure it’s his pride as a warrior or his honest judgment of his opponent that’s relaxed him enough to speak and betray his sanity.
            “—It is fun.
            “So I’m sorry I have to cut this short.”

            And.
            —There’s the sound of a brutal impact.

            “Gah—”

            Avenger hits the ground and slides.
            Her body doesn’t stop until she’s several meters away.
            There’s a long trailing bloodstain tracing the ground from where she stood to where she lies, and from the blood on Gulcasa’s weapon I’m guessing that he struck hard at her stomach or diaphragm, which aren’t protected by her armor.

            “—”
            There’s hard, rasping breathing.
            The wound that was delivered so quickly my eyes couldn’t track it must be a serious one.
            Avenger lies still as if unwilling or unable to regain her feet.
            Her abilities as a Servant will heal the wound eventually if it’s not already fatal.

            But all the same, the battle is decided in this one blow.
            Avenger won’t be able to fight for hours even if she heals.
            Gulcasa has stopped advancing, as he won’t kill an opponent in this condition unless I order it or unless the opponent has personally given him a reason to do so.

            And I won’t give the order.
            Because even if it would be economical to kill the enemies we can, it’s still not certain that the vessel is fully ready to accept the first sacrifices.

            …But.
            “—Avenger, what are you doing?!
            “Get up and continue the fight right now!”

            Avenger’s Master, as if unable to read the atmosphere, says so in a cross and shrill tone of voice.

            “—It’s useless.”
            I say so as I walk towards them.
            “Your Servant can’t defend you, so retreat if you know what’s good for you.”

            “—”
            She casts me a scathing look as if to tell me to butt out.

            And then.

            “—I order you to stand and continue fighting, Avenger.
            “I won’t allow these little boys to make a fool of me.”

            There’s a crack like the sound of a whip, and my body jolts without my being able to control it, an automatic reaction I can’t suppress.
            In front of me, Gulcasa has also gone tense.

            That was—unmistakably.
            The release of a Command Spell.

            “—”
            Red sparks crawl along Avenger’s body.
           The woman in armor tries to push herself up on her arms and to drag herself up with her sword, but it’s useless.
            She is physically incapable of fulfilling her Master’s order in this position.
            She may not even have the presence of mind to shed her physical form anymore.
            Still, the compulsion of the Command Spell forces her body to move.
            Avenger struggles miserably on the ground, still covered in blood.

            …How senseless and how cruel.

            I can vaguely sense my Servant’s body shaking near me.
            And honestly, I feel sick enough to vomit.
            Luckily for me, there’s nothing in my body that I could expel.

            The foolish Master’s annoying voice still rings in my ears.
            As if unable to understand what she’s doing, she still continues to shout insults at the Servant that cannot obey her order.

            Something inside me—cracks.

            “—Be silent.”

            “—?”
            She turns toward me with an annoyed expression, and only then do I recognize the sound of my own voice.

            My hand has lifted, and my legs move on their own.
            I am standing so that only a few inches separate my fingers from her throat.

            “—You.
            “Rescind that order and get the hell out of my sight right now, or I will kill you and put that girl beyond your reach forever.”

            “—”
            I watch her eyes change and narrow as she realizes that I am dead serious.

            She doesn’t say anything more, but she slowly moves backwards step by step.
            “…Avenger.”

            The knight’s body disappears immediately.
            The bloodied ground remains.

            Continuing to look back at me suspiciously, Avenger’s Master retreats.
            It isn’t until she reaches the edge of the park that she begins to run.

            “—”
            The tension in my shoulders doesn’t relax.
            I realize very distantly that my body is shaking.

            Even so.
            I make myself turn towards Gulcasa, who is still looking at Avenger’s blood on the ground out of narrowed eyes.
            His body is perfectly still.

            “…”
            I force my legs to move so that I may stand beside him.
            …I don’t know if it’s safe to speak his name here, out in the open.
            But at the least, I can still try to comfort him somehow.
            Softly.
            I reach out to touch the back of his hand.

            “…Ah.”
            I feel his body jump very slightly under my touch, and he looks at me as if disoriented.
            After a moment, he moves his arm so that the palm of his gauntleted hand rests against my own palm.
            He doesn’t say anything.
            …Just as he’s the only one who might be able to understand what I’m feeling right now…, I’m the only one who knows the reasons why this is affecting him so.
            I line up our fingers and weave them together tightly.

            “…It’s turned out like this, but should we continue?”
            I start to say that.
            I try to say that.

            …But for some reason the inside of my skull is very heavy.
            My body that is only connected to Gulcasa’s at this one point veers into his side.
            All the exhaustion that has built up in my body seems to rise up and overwhelm me.

            “—Nessiah.”
            Even Gulcasa’s voice seems to be coming from a long ways away.
            My vision goes blue and then my eyes close of their own accord.

            There’s something painful.
            And there’s something gentle.

            My body sinks before I have a chance to differentiate them, and my consciousness disperses without giving me a chance to do anything about it—

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

            “—”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “—Only what we need, then.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

                        That she would—be Saber.

            Whose bad idea of a joke is this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Roswell—!”
            Saber shouts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Tah—!”

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

            I remember.
            …My body remembers that pain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

            “—You will not touch him.”

            Gulcasa’s voice is cold with rage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            It took a great deal of time—but he grew.
            Sheltered by the two friends who loved him and shielded him, he was able to leave the house that had never been a home behind.

            It was difficult.
            He had no illusions about how difficult it was going to be, but all the same, he was prepared.
            …Above all else, he had to be strong.
            The desire that had been born in him for the sake of self-protection would not fade even now, and the fact that he had become resilient enough to survive homeless and penniless was no comfort.

            As he grew.
            …As his world expanded from its tiny circle of pain, he became more consciously aware of what the place that he lived in was like.

            The town was divided into two halves.
            The western side, where he had been born and lived even now, was a place of extreme poverty where those of poor fortune huddled together for protection against the whims of fate.
            The eastern side was a prosperous port city that handled the commerce of the entire empire, and was filled with the rich, the nobility, and upper middle-class merchants.
            The two halves were divided by a great river, and only connected by a single bridge.
            It was a town that could be said to embody the state of his country.

            …It was curious.
            They were citizens of the same town, people of the same country.
            And yet just because of birth or good fortune, some people lived luxurious lives and turned a blind eye to the suffering of others.
            …Worse, there were many nobles and merchants who preyed mercilessly on the poor, using ridiculous pretense to take what little money and food they had as if all they knew how to do was hurt others.

            All around him, people were being taken advantage of financially.
            Those who could no longer pay disappeared, only to turn up at the auction block to be sold as slaves, indentured servants, and whores.
            Just because of their birth—they had no future.
            Equally as terrifying to the poor were the occasional military drafts.
            There was no disobeying the Emperor, and the Emperor wanted to rebuild the country’s army, seeking to bring the empire under control through military force.

            Just thinking about it made him nauseous with helpless hate.

            Because—it was the same.
            Because…, in this world, in this empire—almost everyone he knew was suffering the way that he had.

            It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t just.
            …And he couldn’t stand to watch it.

            As to why—

            He would remember…, and every unkind word said to his fellow poor, every noble’s hand laid on those people, every invasive touch, every misfortune……, was every unjust thing his father had inflicted upon him.
            It made him crazy.
            …Yes.
            Just watching it was more than his mind could bear.

            It wasn’t just that he was young and foolish and idealistic.
            …Although that was definitely a part of it.
            He simply could not bear the suffering of other people, because he equated it with his suffering and because it revived that suffering inside his own heart and mind.

            And—even beyond that.
            Those people who already had next to nothing, who were in danger of plummeting into the depths of hell if they lost anything more—
            Those people still found it in themselves to share what little they had with him and with the girl who had saved him.

            There were people who would give them a small meal in exchange for working their meager fields.
            And there were people who gave them blankets and supplies so that they wouldn’t die of exposure when it got cold.
            And there were people who would let them into the chapel after midnight so that they would have a place to sleep.
            And there were people selling their wares on the street who would smile and hand them milk and dried meat and say that they didn’t need payment.

            …He probably cried about it at night.
            He probably cried himself sick with it.
            These people were the children he had known when he was small, and their kindness and acceptance was more than he could handle.

            He had to do something; it was as simple as that.
            It wasn’t that he simply wanted to.

            His desire for strength and his desire to protect himself.
            His rejection of all injustice.
            …It all compounded into a compulsive need to help these people, to protect this town, to stop the nobles and the merchants from preying on the powerless the way that his father had done to him.

            There was nothing else that he could do.
            His heart and his mind were both broken.
            It wasn’t strength of character in the least—he of all people knew that he was weaker and less worthy of admiration than anyone.

            It was just that it was so unfair that he couldn’t stand it.

            Once he and his friends were old enough.
            The three of them began to fight back.

            …At first it was just sneaking over into the other side of town in the depths of night and stealing back money and goods that the wicked nobles had taken.
            And then as they began to learn faces and names, they followed specific merchants, trying to catch them at hurting others so that they had justification for fighting them.

            The girl and the boy who followed him, who knew his heart and believed in the same ideal, named their tiny vigilante band “Blaze” after his passion and the color of his long red hair.
            Even if they were still too young and powerless to do much, the people of the slums who knew that there was someone who would fight for their sake supported them quietly.

            It went on like that.
            Eventually, they found a single man—a merchant who engaged in loan sharking to rob many poor people of everything they had—and followed him and followed him.
            It took half a year to actually catch him in the act, during which all they could do was steal things back for the victims.

            …Finally.
            He had just barely turned seventeen.

            They caught that merchant trying to kidnap a little girl, and attacked him with full force.
            They chased him all through the slums, determined to capture him and make him pay it all back, to force fate to give the poor mercy for once.
            …And in the end, they were able to separate him from his hired mercenaries and capture him at last.

            His body was no longer as small, but the emotions that rocked it were too much for him to hold.
            …Finally, he had a target for all his helpless rage.
            Finally—here was someone he could vent out the suffering of the poor upon.

            But.
            …It was his friends who stopped him.
            They would ransom the merchant for the value of everything he had taken, make him swear to reform his ways in writing, and only kill him if he violated his word.
            News of their first major victory would spread, and the other evildoers might think twice before preying on the weak.
            It would be their first step in actually protecting the poor.

            …There was a part of him that wondered.
            There was a part of him that ached over the question of whether anything in the world could really change by such slow and uncertain methods.
            ……But because there were no better ideas, he agreed.

            Even then.
            …It turned out that things wouldn’t go so easily, as the mercenaries who should have been paying the ransom price killed their former employer instead.
            They, too, were dependent on the money he had stolen, and were unwilling to let their work go unpaid.
            When he—and when his friends—raged out against the collapse of their only working plan and the unfairness of those selfish adults, they were met with scorn.
            Surrounded by enemies, they prepared themselves to fight to the last breath in the name of their ideals, and for a moment their death seemed certain.

            …But they were in luck.
            A traveling warrior who had been watching their battle burst in and sent the mercenaries scattering, running to regroup far away from their goal of the nobles’ quarter.
            She saved them from certain death with her skill, but when they made to chase after the retreating enemies and finish them for good, she held them back with cold words.

            “You can’t forgive this injustice. You can’t let it slide. Look, I get how you feel. Still, if you actually want to go through with that, you need to be powerful and wise. Even you can understand that, right? To put it bluntly, you and your soldiers are as good as novices. You’re alive right now because of sheer dumb luck.”

            The whole of him bowed underneath that stranger’s contempt.
            …He’d had doubts the whole time, and to have those doubts attacked so brutally burnt him out completely.
            Perhaps seeing that and taking pity, the woman who had saved them suggested a few strategies for cutting off their enemies that would work before she went on her way.
            Given a new foothold, they decided to follow her words and lay in wait.

            But even with surety in this fight, doubts continue to plague him.
            …She had been right.
            And there had to be a way.
            He tormented himself with questions and cursed his own weakness.
            There had to be a way to become strong enough that he could see this through—that he could save his people and himself.

            As she had said, the mercenaries arrived.
            And with the advantage of terrain and the foreknowledge that they would come, he and his friends were victorious.

            This wouldn’t solve anything.
            …But at least there were a few less people to prey on the poor.
            As he thought that, a voice called out to them.

            …It was a man from the affluent side of the town, a noble who the boy following him identified as an extreme liberal who was attempting to gather political power and promote reform.
            That man, the landgrave who owned the general area their town was built upon, called out to them and said that they should join forces.
            That he needed an army, and that they with the same goals as he ought to follow him.
            They would gain the power to protect the poor, and he would have forces to protect him should his political enemies aim for his life.

            …For him, there wasn’t much to think about.
            It was as that traveler had said; he was too weak to see his ideals through, and this was a sure way to gain power.
            According to his friend’s intelligence, this noble was probably not lying about what he wanted their help for.
            And so he agreed.

            …Even the traveler, who had been simply watching them from a distance to see what they would do, was surprised.
            But for him, there was no other choice to make.
            The suffering of the people wasn’t something he could stand by and ignore.
            If he bowed under his own suffering any further, he would surely break.
            So if there was a chance for him to change that, he had to take the risk and seize it.

            The landgrave who had hired them said that his only condition was that they not call themselves vigilantes anymore, as that would be too odd for a private army.
            He renamed them Gram Blaze, a title that meant “furious flames” in an old language.

            …The only thing that he could tell for sure was that they were at the starting line at last.
            Whatever future they were about to take off running for, it wouldn’t be easy to turn back.
            But that was all right.
            As long as there was the chance that he could actually change the world’s injustice for the better, what happened to him didn’t matter—

 

            “—”
            I wake.

            My body aches from my injuries over the past night, my head aches from the cold, and my chest aches from my having to see Gulcasa’s early memories firsthand.
            …It’s cold this morning as usual, but it’s not as bad as usual.
            Obviously, that’s because of my makeshift furnace, who is still asleep at my side—though I suppose the stove deserves some lesser degree of credit as well.
            I don’t know how much I want to move, as the whole of my back is throbbing somewhat dully, but given how close we are there’s a curious desire to touch his face that I don’t know if I can suppress.

            “…Really, there’s no helping you.”
            I keep my voice soft even as I say so, though.
            Gulcasa’s arm is still over my waist, and there is very little space between our bodies.
            He’s so warm I could honestly just cry.

            “—”
            I close my eyes again.
            That heaviness all over my body is still in place, and I know that it’s not going to dissipate now no matter what.
            …I need to get used to dealing with it, really.
            But even so.
            Just waiting a few more minutes until Gulcasa wakes up on his own shouldn’t be such a terrible thing.

            “—”
            The next thing that I’m aware of, there are blunt but gentle fingertips running through the ends of my hair.
            “—Ugh.”
            When I open my eyes, of course Gulcasa is lying on his side looking at me.
            I can’t read his expression, but the tenderness in his eyes is enough for me right now.

            “…Nessiah, you have to wake up.
            “There are things we have to take care of today.”

            Ugh, I know.
            Just give me a few more moments of weakness.
            I want to pretend that we’re all there is to the world for just a bit longer.

            “Nessiah.”
            The warm hand rests against my cheek.
            I want it to stay there, so I close my eyes again even knowing that it’s childish.
            “Nessiah, you really are still terrible at getting up, aren’t you.”
            …I’m not even dignifying that with a reply.
            It’s cold and my body is heavy and I can’t think very well, so why can’t you let me be for just a little bit longer—?
            But the way that I shiver and the faint ache-like malaise that hangs over me won’t deter him.
            Gulcasa’s hand runs down the length of my body, and then pulls up the thin blankets.
            There’s a warm touch at my forehead that’s a familiar texture quite different from his heavily callused hands.

            “You can go back to sleep for a little bit, but first you need to loosen the boundary field a little so that I can fish and make breakfast.
            “—And we do need to go out and shop for food today, even if that’s the only thing we do. I’m not taking no for an answer on that one.”

            …Ugh, he’s probably right.
            There’s a brief stabbing pain along my sternum as I roll over on the mattress and focus with my eyes closed to tone down the boundary field.
            As it is now, it won’t allow anyone to enter or leave, and I suppose it’s strong enough even to work on Heroic Spirits if Gulcasa has to ask me to tamper with it.

            …In any case, that’s done, so can I sleep now—?
            I think that, and then Gulcasa thanks me quietly and his warmth disappears.
            …His footfalls are audible as he heads for the door.

            …No.
            That’s not what I wanted to happen.
            I can’t think straight and my limbs are too disobedient for me to go chase him.
            My eyelids are unbearably heavy, and my body aches.
            No matter how many times I try to beat down the grogginess, I keep losing.

            …This definitely isn’t good, but—
            Well, I can’t quite sleep but I can’t really wake up either, so I just lie still in the lingering warmth and wait for a long timeless expanse.

            “—Nessiah.”
            The next thing I know, there’s Gulcasa’s voice.
            “You need to get up so that we can eat.”
            He’s insistent.
            And now that I can smell roasted fish, my stomach really hurts with how hungry I am.
            …That’s surprising even for me.

            But my body is uncooperative and sluggish, and so Gulcasa has to help me sit up in the end.
            Supported by him, with eyes that don’t want to stay open, I’m able to eat.
            Of all things, it’s the taste of fish that actually starts to wake me up, and once I’m through I can mostly sit up on my own.
            My limbs are still somewhat unresponsive, but I can drag myself around if I truly need to.

            “—”
            Gulcasa just looks at me worriedly.
            …I wish he wouldn’t.
            Yes, the bruises from last night still hurt a bit, but this really is nothing, and I should be able to wake up better as the day goes on.

            “…I just hope you’re not getting sick.”
            He sighs and says this at length, shaking his head.
            “You’ve always been a pretty heavy sleeper, but it’s unnatural to be this sluggish in the morning unless you’re sick, isn’t it?”
            “—I don’t know about that.
            “Well, I have been getting aches, but those are from last night anyway. So it’s nothing to worry about yet.”
            Even though I mean to reassure him, Gulcasa just looks at me sternly when I express my lack of concern.

            “…Nessiah, you really are an idiot.
            “Look, I’ve been trying to get this into your head for a long time, but you need to take care of yourself better than this.
            “Even if you’re not actually sick, in your condition it wouldn’t be strange if you did suddenly fall ill, don’t you get it?
            “Your body took a significant shock with the attack last night, and I don’t know if it’s because you’ve been half starving yourself or not, but you’ve been way more lethargic than is normal.
            “I’ll admit that there’s plenty that I don’t know about the situation, but even though I can protect you from other people’s ill intent, I can’t always protect you from yourself. And when you’re already like this, if you neglect yourself any further you could actually wind up in danger of dying.”
            Gulcasa stares at me earnestly as his voice gradually gets louder and louder.
            His gestures broaden as he gives voice to his frustration.
            …I feel as though his eyes could pierce right through me.
            Even though I think that it’s clearly needless…, the truth is still that he’s very worried for my sake.
            How like him.

            “Nessiah, we can’t go out patrolling tonight.
            “—You have to rest, and that’s final.”
            Gulcasa proclaims this to me with a distraught expression.

            “…It’s all right.
            “That’s fine with me, so we’ll rest tonight.
            “—And I’m sorry to worry you.”

            When I say that, my Servant relaxes somewhat.
            …Honestly, I’m really not that worried about the lethargy I’m feeling.
            Either it’s a side effect of being injured and having Gulcasa fight, thus using up large quantities of prana; or it’s something that’s only going to get more difficult to deal with as the war goes on.
            And either way, it’s something that I just have to deal with on my own.
            But if it will grant Gulcasa some peace of mind, I’m fine with taking a short break from doing battle.

            “—I guess what’s most important now is feeding you.”
            Gulcasa folds his arms and sighs, turning as always to practicalities.
            “Nessiah, do we even have things to cook with here?”

            “…Well, there are some old pots and pans that you can take a look at, but it all seems to be basic kitchen equipment that I would know how to use.
            “I’ll also have to scour them for rust and such before I can let you use them. If we cook using dirty utensils, it may not be a problem for you, but I’ll only feel worse.”
            I remind him of that, but Gulcasa just smiles at me.
            “—Maybe, but I’m still more worried about you being picky than the strength of your stomach, at any rate.”
            …All I can do is sigh.
            “As long as we’re thinking of practicalities—I don’t know that I have my old tolerance levels to the kinds of things that would make an ordinary person sick.
            “My environment before I came to this place was—well, for the most part I didn’t eat at all.”
            At least, nutrients were delivered to me in different ways.
            And strictly speaking I probably didn’t need food anyway.
            Because Gulcasa is looking at me with concern, I try to smile, but I have the feeling that the expression is coming out twisted and bitter on my face.
            “…That’s right. Before now, I was surviving on the roughest of bare essentials.
            “To be brutally honest, the weakened condition I’ve been kept in up until now is probably contributing somewhat to any irregularities in my body at this time.”

            “—”
            Gulcasa stares at the floorboards between us.
            He’s biting his lip.

            “It’s all right.
            “…Because I’m not there anymore.”

            But Gulcasa opens his mouth and hesitates just a breath before speaking.
            “……You don’t have to be that strong, Nessiah.”
            Just looking at his expression, it’s plain that he wants to ask, but he doesn’t.
            Gulcasa simply places his hands atop my own and shakes his head.
            …His touch is soft, and his palms are warm as always.

            “You don’t—have to be that strong.”

            …So, after some deliberation, a shopping list is drawn up.
            While I’m cleaning out the battered old cooking equipment, Gulcasa takes my writing materials and writes down a list of absolutely essential crockery and then a number of supplies.
            Vegetables, meat, and fruits.
            I suppose with fish in the river there’s no need to add them to the list.
            We can’t really buy anything that’s canned, and it might be cold enough to be able to store raw meat without worrying, but that’s a risk that maybe we shouldn’t take, so dried meats are also a possibility; either that or we’ll have to go out and keep buying things—
            Well, it’s all along those lines.
            Gulcasa paces and talks to himself in a quiet voice and writes out our checklist as if determining a battle plan.
            If the situation were a little different, I’d find it silly and endearing, but this really is all we can do with the materials we have at hand.

            Cooking will be a way for Gulcasa to relax, as well as a way for me to get food, so even if I wasn’t in need of better nutrition I’d probably be amenable to this turn of events.
            …I’m willing to admit that I’m not very good for my Servant’s stress levels, at least.

            It’s already about noon by the time that we’re ready to go.
            …I double-check the amount of money that we have left, and weave the illusions on the coins and bills.
            It’s awkward to do that with Gulcasa watching.
            Even if he’s given his consent for the time being due to our circumstances, I know that he doesn’t really approve.

            We step out into the biting cold.
            “—”
            It’s especially bad today.

            “Nessiah—”
            Gulcasa stretches out an arm and brings me close to his side.
            And it’s shameful, but I can do little more than cling to his warmth.
            We stand there for a moment, silent, with his long hair blowing about both our bodies.
            …But in the end I squeeze his hand and straighten myself up.
            I can’t just depend on him unilaterally when he needs my direction as well.
            No matter my condition, I can’t just fall apart.
            I’m the Master here, after all.

            “Let’s go.”
            Gulcasa nods to me in reply.
            And, staying close to each other so that the awful cold won’t prevent me from being able to move, we make our way across the long bridge and toward the market district.

            It truly is cold.
            Being above the water with only the thin walkway and guardrail to ward off the chill of the river, it’s freezing, so much so that I might faint without Gulcasa lending me his heat beside me.
            But I try not to allow my distaste for the temperature to show on my face.

            From there, it’s not at all far to get to the marketplace.
            “—”
            It’s still horribly cold, but the chill is bearable here, unlike over the water.
            “…Should we just find some store to duck into for a while so that we don’t have to stand out here?”
            Even as I nod to answer Gulcasa…, there’s something that’s distracting me.
            An odd sensation like a sort of tugging at the weight rested all along my body.
            …There’s no pain in my shoulder to indicate an enemy Master drawing near, but all the same, there is something in this place that doesn’t quite belong.
            …And with the Grail War formally begun, I’m not naïve enough to think it cannot be connected.

            “—Gulcasa.”
            When I look up at him, he’s also surveying the crowds of people with an intense expression.
            So I’m sure he’s noticed it as well.

            …We are surrounded by “civilians”.
            So magi with common sense most likely wouldn’t attack us.
            Still, there’s the possibility of our being followed, and we can’t count on our guest having common sense.

            I close my eyes.
            If I can shut out the assault of the world on my other senses, then I should be able to trace the direction of this “weight” as a guideline—

            “Ah…”
            There.

            When I glance over my shoulder to where the odd sense is coming from,
            “—”
            there’s a familiar woman standing there.

            At her height, it’s easy to see her through the crowds, now that I know where I should look.
            The same as with Gulcasa, she might be wearing modern clothing, but the length and color of her hair stand out amidst the throngs of native Japanese.
            …And for whatever reason, she seems to have a shopping bag looped over her arm.
            …Well.
            “…Gulcasa.”
            “—I see her.
            “Apparently we’re not the only ones who’ve come here to run errands today.”

            …Still.
            The bond of that Master and Servant was strained, and her Master certainly isn’t present.
            If they’re not shopping together for companionship, and there’s no way that the Servant would volunteer for such a duty, then one of my enemies really and truly is a fool.
            In a circumstance like this, I wouldn’t object to the phrase “divine punishment” being used to describe the fate that surely awaits a Master who makes their Servant do chores like a mindless animal familiar.

            “…Nessiah.”
            Gulcasa has relaxed a bit beside me.
            His eyes are still wary, but he no longer has a sense of hostility to the tension in his body.
            …He doesn’t say anything more.
            But I can tell that he’s waiting for my permission.
            And I have a reasonable guess as to what he wants.

            “—It’s more than fair, I suppose.
            “All right. Let’s follow up on the other night.”

            It’s not something so simple that I would want to call it pity.
            The emotions I’m feeling now are more like kinship.
            …And all the same.
            I try to hold on to my own healthy sense of distrust as we make our way through the crowd.

            “—Avenger.”

            “—Eh?”
            She turns towards us in a lazy, unconcerned motion.
            Her relaxation is that of one who could tell that another person of power was nearby, but still had no fear.
            Rather, her blank expression makes it appear more like she was spacing out and didn’t think that we would actually call out to her.
            “Oh, so it is you guys.”
            The look on Avenger’s face is neutral, if on the more open side.
            My instinct is to let my guard down immediately, but I still don’t want to do so.
            From our interaction with this Servant previously, she is straightforward if nothing else, but we can’t ignore the possibility that her Master may be watching just out of range of where our Command Spells would react.

            “—It’s probably odd, getting called out by us in a place like this.
            “But even so.
            “Are you all right?”

            At Gulcasa’s words, a complicated expression crosses Avenger’s face.
            The slight grimace of her lips is probably meant to be a smile, but it’s clearly fallen quite a bit short of the mark.

            “—You goddamn Good Samaritans.
            “Nosy people like you guys are just so charming I could vomit.”
            The tone of her voice is light as she complains.
            Well, I suppose I might have trouble accepting unasked-for help from some unrelated person or an enemy as well.

            “Oh. Well, do forgive us, in that case.
            “—You don’t have to believe me, but it was for our sake as much as yours, you know.
            “If I’d had to watch that for any longer I believe my head might have split open from the pain, you see.”

            “—Hmm.”
            Avenger looks down at me.
            Her grimace has gone away, and in its place she seems to be considering my words.
            …If she understands my meaning that we’re alike, then that’s good. Of course, if she can’t comprehend it then that’s all right as well.

            Gulcasa sighs at us as though he’s the one getting a migraine.
            “—You didn’t answer my question.
            “Are you all right? You seem to have recovered on the outside, but still, it’s hard to imagine a warrior as proud as you coming to a place like this voluntarily.”

            The disease of sighs is contagious, it seems, as Avenger breathes out while rolling her eyes skyward.
            “…Uh, I’d like to tell you it’s not as bad as you think, but I’m in no position to do that.
            “I’ll at least tell you that it’s probably not quite what you’re imagining. I just graciously agreed to do the shopping today because it was less of a pain than getting into a big argument.
            “…Damn it, I swear I’m going to kill that woman at my earliest opportunity.”

            “…”
            Gulcasa shifts his weight beside me.
            …I swear, the part of him that turns into an anxious mother cat as soon as he’s exposed to any form of inequity is exactly the same as it was when he was seventeen.
            Just as his appearance now is the same is it was when he was killed, I think a part of his heart must still be frozen at that age.

            “—I see.
            “Then, whenever the time comes that we settle things on the battlefield, I’ll make a greater effort at keeping her occupied.”

            “—Eh?”
            “—Hoh.”
            Gulcasa and Avenger both look down at me as if in surprise.
            “Really, don’t make the same expression in tandem like that, it’s so adorable that it’s disgusting.
            “What I’m saying is that Berserker values fair play, and the both of you value a good battle.
            “Add to that the fact that I cannot forgive that woman either, and it falls to me to keep her so busy fighting me that she won’t be able to interfere with the two of you.
            “Is that easier to understand?”

            A weird expression crosses Avenger’s face, as if she’s trying to suppress the desire to laugh.
            “—Damn it.
            “I really do like you two.”

            “Well, thank you for the appraisal, I suppose.”
            But before I can say anything else, the wind blows.
            Wit and resistance are sliced out of my body as cold air pulls at my clothes and slips through the seams to attack my bare skin.

            “—”
            Even though Gulcasa steps in the way of the wind and puts an arm around me, I can’t stop shivering.
            We’ve spent quite a while standing and talking, after all, even though there’s not much else we could have done in these circumstances.
            And I really and truly do hate this cold.

            “…Sorry.
            “We really do have to get back to shopping, if only for the sake of going inside a building for a short while.”
            Gulcasa is addressing Avenger, but all of his attention is on me.
            …Well.
            I can’t even protest, but I do have the sense that this is a bit unsightly of me.

            For her part, Avenger stands watching us with a blank expression and her hands on her hips.
            Her hair rustles lightly in the wind, and the plastic bag hung over her wrist shakes.

            “—Wait a minute.
            “I don’t like owing debts, and I was just handed this wallet and told to go spend money, so how about lunch? It’s Yellma’s treat, since she’s not fastidious enough to check how much I spent where.”
            Avenger’s eyes are shining from the opportunity to cause trouble for her Master.
            Gulcasa still seems somewhat worried about what might happen if she doesn’t get away with it, and I personally would still rather have something he makes…
            But I wouldn’t want to crush someone’s aspirations of subtle resistance against someone with power over them, and Gulcasa is still prioritizing me over all else.

 

            And so.
            A very short debate afterward, we are sitting in a booth in a restaurant, Gulcasa and I on one side and Avenger on the other.
            On the table between us is a wide plate of grilled chicken covered in teriyaki sauce and tiny sesame seeds, a large bowl of fried calamari, a plate of pot stickers with soy sauce and ginger for dipping, and rolled-up cucumber sushi. There’s also even a bowl of salted edamame.
            Avenger is drinking something called bubble tea through a thick straw and looking extremely pleased with herself.
            Gulcasa keeps watching with interest, as apparently he’s never seen such a thing as fruit juice with tapioca in it, although he ordered hot matcha for the both of us.
            …Honestly, I’m amazed that there’s even this immense amount of food, although I do suppose that a pair of Servants as big as Gulcasa and Avenger will be able to put it away easily.
            The tea, at least, is warm and high-quality.
            I don’t usually like green tea as I find it too bitter for me, but this matcha is a poisonous green and has a very soft texture to it, like liquid velvet.
            Apparently it costs about as much as every other entrée on the table.
            In this case, it’s justified by the quality, as even I like it despite hating green tea.
            I hold the mug in both hands to warm my fingers up, and sample different pieces of the food on the table.
            Being seated between Gulcasa and the wall is slowly restoring the warmth that I haven’t felt since this morning, when I woke up in my Servant’s arms.

            Gulcasa manages to get the attention of one of the waiters, and the two get into a conversation about the basics of this type of cooking.
            His eyes are sparkling like he’s inspired.
            Avenger continues to watch all of this in amusement.

            “—He’s really into this, isn’t he?
            “What, did he get acknowledged as a Heroic Spirit for enthusiasm over cooking?”
            “It’s nothing of the sort, but I’m sure he could have been if he wanted to.”
            It’s honest praise, of course, but Gulcasa just wrinkles his nose at us.

            “It’s just a hobby. Not to mention, it’s a pretty useful skill.
            “Especially when I’m trying to get a certain extremely picky someone to eat.”
            …I believe I’ll ignore that. Magnanimously.

            “…Speaking of which.
            “Nessiah, you should eat more. It’s no good sitting here if all this wonderful stuff Avenger bought as a favor to us goes to waste, is it?
            “—They said that edamame are especially healthy, and none of it should be too hot.”
            “…You do know that if I eat too fast, I’ll only get sick.”
            Well, it is fairly well-made for human food even if it’s not made by Gulcasa, so I can at least eat a little bit of everything.

            “You two are seriously so cute I could just barf.
            “I’d never imagined that the Berserker I fought was such a housewife.”
            “—You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
            Gulcasa stares at her as though perplexed.
            I can’t help but laugh.

            “—He’s a wonderful housewife. The fact that he’s like this saves me every day.”
            “And now you too. I can’t tell whether you’re praising me or insulting me.”
            But the half-smile on Gulcasa’s face convinces me that he understands.
            …I am grateful to him, to the point that words cannot even express my emotions anymore.
            And I am grateful that he is able to perceive that.

            “—Man, I’m jealous.”
            Avenger rests her chin on the heels of her hands and sulks at us with a smile.
            “I can’t believe that even Berserker wound up with a Master so chummy that you’re already like this when the war’s barely started.
            “—Go get married already, you damn idiots.”

            The words are all insults, but there is an extraordinary sort of kindness in the way she sits.
            Her gaze is as blue as the sky before the dawn.

            “…Avenger.”
            I don’t know what I want to say.
            I vaguely understand that this is something I can’t plan unless I want it to fail, and so I put my faith in my intuition and let the words come naturally.

            “The important thing is—not to give up.”
            My voice is small in the busy restaurant.
            I think that the wooden chopsticks used by patrons in the booths near us are louder, but both the crimson Servant next to me and the sky-colored Servant across the table are watching me raptly.
            “Being under a yoke you never wanted to bear is a feeling similar to claustrophobia.
            “It’s a cage closed around you, and no matter how you try to stifle the urge to panic, it just keeps rising up in you until you want to thrash about mindlessly for an escape.
            “…But it’s important to hold on to your mind and your self.
            “If your mind is free, then you’ll remain able to watch for openings, and if no openings come into view, then all you have to do is remember that no cage is so sturdy that it won’t rust eventually.
            “…As long as you don’t give up, then the chances will pile up until you can break free.
            “I wouldn’t be saying this if I didn’t believe that it is also possible for me.”

            It is entirely likely that this Servant will not be saved during this summoning.
            But even the termination of this summoning will give her peace.
            …And after that, whatever she searches for that led her to be called forth by the Holy Grail—it surely isn’t something that she can give up on.
            I know enough of the nature of people to be able to guess something that obvious.

            “…Nessiah.”
            Beside me, Gulcasa calls softly in a worried voice.

            I try to smile and narrow my eyes.
            “…You see, the thing about biding your time in an oppressor’s cage is that the longer you pretend to have submitted, the more quickly it’s forgotten that you still possess fangs with which to bite.”

            Avenger watches me expressionlessly.
            Gulcasa, beside me, is looking down at me almost listlessly. The sadness in his eyes gives him a sense of weakness.
            ……I have escaped the cage, but to continue my own metaphor, I haven’t yet been able to discard my collar.
            Well, the only reason I’m able to bluff so well is that I’m fighting with everything I have.
            Gulcasa is with me.
            I have someone to rely on, and so I have less to fear.

            “—You too.”
            “Eh?”
            Avenger’s words cut through my fugue, and I blink at her, feeling as though I’ve lost the thread of the conversation.

            “…I’m just saying, I like you guys.
            “My first impression of you was wrong. So I’ll just say that you can’t give up either.”
            A proclamation from one person who’s suffering under injustice to another.
            My feeling of kinship from before continues to grow much stronger.

            …Yes.
            There’s a passing resemblance to Gulcasa as well as far as her personality goes, but in terms of basic nature I would say that Avenger is a creature most similar to me.
            Her carelessness and her pride are tools used to hide her weaknesses.
            Unlike Gulcasa, who displays himself openly and honestly, she might be described as a bit fickle. She has the common sense to be aware that the dishonorable will not hesitate to use her weak points against her.

            “We’ll all…, do our best.”
            Gulcasa closes his eyes and smiles as if pained.
            “…Yes.
            “Avenger, do see if you can’t get rid of that Master of yours and find a more suitable magus.
            “I can’t believe that there’s no one who would serve as a better partner to you in a ground so spiritually advantageous as this.”

            Avenger laughs, and the moment passes.

            She and Gulcasa fight halfheartedly over the remaining food, divide it amongst themselves, and ask the waiter for a box for all the leftovers so that Gulcasa and I can take it home.
            …Well, this solves some of our problems as well, especially as I can enchant the air inside the box to keep the food warm.
            Sigh.
            If only I could do as much with a much larger space, like the air around me when I’m outside.

 

            We part ways, a little awkwardly.
            Even though Gulcasa seems to want to watch her go, he still tucks me close to his body and ducks us both into the first store on our list.
            Over the course of the next two hours, he acquires one bag filled with cooking implements and two bags filled with ingredients.
            There is meat, which I suppose will be used for tonight’s food, and then a number of vegetables and fruits that will keep fresh enough to eat safely even if we just keep them in the open air.
            Once Gulcasa is satisfied with our spoils, we begin the trek back across the bridge and to the old shack that waits for us.

            The edges of the sky are stained red as I duck inside and finally allow my legs to fold.
            “—”
            I don’t even bother trying to take my jacket off.
            It’s too cold for that. I’m going to freeze and break into pieces if I don’t do something to stay warm.

            “…Are you all right?
            “Here, let me get things started.”

            Gulcasa wraps the blankets from the bed around me, but unfortunately, he won’t just stay at my side.
            He gets the stove going, then starts to unload some of the food and begins preparing meat and vegetables.
            Judging by the large pot that he has taken out, dinner seems to be stew with beef.

            “You can lie down if you want, or you can eat some of the leftover edamame or the calamari.”
            “…I’m all right for now.”
            Even as I feel Gulcasa’s eyes on me, I just pull the blankets in around my body and close my own eyes.
            The light of the stove is red through my eyelids, and with Gulcasa working and the fire going, I can feel sensation beginning to return to my limbs.
            …I’m very tired.
            Either I really have gotten weak in the amount of time that I’ve spent in the cage, or today has simply worn me out a lot.
            But in the warmth, and with this weight that’s settled over my body, all I can really do is rest and conserve my strength.
            …That is the point of remaining here today.

            With the soothing rhythm of Gulcasa peeling potatoes nearby and the weighty cat’s cradle tangled up inside me, I allow myself to fall into a light doze.

(interlude 4-1)

            “Ugh—”

            And just like that, the battle is over.
            The body of the magus in white is slammed against the ground, and her dark hair fans out across the cobbled sidewalk.

            The form of her Servant, Assassin, is already gone from this world.
            Nothing more remains of her but dust in the breeze.

            “…”
            And.
            Across the road from the defeated magus stands the impassive Servant in white armor, running a pale hand through the long hair the color of gold.

            She didn’t have a chance.
            She knows this.
            Even amongst Servants, that woman that she and Assassin faced is a monster.
            A wall of perfect defense anomalous for a Caster, with absolute attack power.
            And to make things worse, she appeared alone, so there was no Master to aim for in order to end the fight quickly.

            This is no more than bad luck.
            The Master Soala’s Grail War has ended on her second day.

            …And there is no escape.
            She crawls on the ground gritting her teeth against the frustration.
            That thing outclasses a subpar magus like her completely.

            “—”
            The angel all in gold raises her Noble Phantasm.
            The crook of the staff points towards the defeated Master like the muzzle of a gun.

            “Magus, I will give you oblivion.”
            She speaks in a toneless voice.
            She speaks colorlessly without emotion or care and lights up her weapon as if this is a mere everyday task for her.

            There is a great stench of ozone as the area lights up briefly.
            A thin crack like thunder rolling.

            And it is finished.
            Caster strokes an elegant hand through her long hair, pushing it back over her shoulder in a languorous movement.
            The body of the archangel fades into the scenery, casting off a soft sparkle of light.

 

            …In that manner.
            The first Master leaves the stage in silence as a burnt corpse,
            and the most powerful defensive Servant begins to move—

(4-1 interlude out.)

            “Nessiah.”
            My body jolts slightly at the sudden sound of Gulcasa’s voice.
            For a moment, I have no idea where I am or what is happening.

            “—Nessiah?”
            I shake my head slowly in an effort to quell my dizziness.
            Something feels distinctly off, but I can’t put my finger on what.

            The shack has warmed up.
            I can tell by the darkness that the sun has set. The only illumination is the fire of the stove, and the flames that cradle Gulcasa’s pot.
            Gulcasa himself is kneeling next to it in his black clothes and long wine-colored tunic, with his hair trailing onto the ground as he looks at me with a concerned expression.

            “—I’m awake.
            “I just meant to rest, but I think I must have really gone to sleep for a bit.”

            Gulcasa continues to watch me for a moment, but then he sighs and his shoulders fall slightly.
            “Well, dinner is ready.
            “I made a lot, so you’d better eat a lot.”
            “I appreciate your efforts, but you know I’m not really built for banqueting.
            “Even so, I’ll do the best that I can, since you made it especially for me.
            “—Don’t hold back, there’s no point in saving food when you’re hungry too.”

            Gulcasa shakes his head at me.
            “You have such a bird’s stomach. As if it’s not bad enough already that you’re picky as hell and have a cat’s tongue.
            “—And, hey, don’t just go one-sidedly talking about how hungry I must be.”
            “Gulcasa, I know you. You’re always hungry.”
            When I say that, he scratches his head in an irritated manner and looks at the ground as if abashed.
            “…Well, I guess that’s true.
            “But you still need the food more than me. Come on, it’s beef stew and everything that went into it is good. Even if the materials are a little unfamiliar, I still think I was able to make it up to my own standards.
            “So come over here and have some. Don’t burn yourself, either.”

            So saying, my Servant ladles the thick stew into the new bowls we’ve purchased, and holds one in his lap while setting the other down for me to take.
            …I can’t remember whether he bought spices today, as I spent most of our shopping trip thinking about our encounter with Avenger and anyway I was rather drowsy at the time.
            But even if it’s only broth and vegetables and chunks of beef, the aroma of the stew is very relaxing, and I know that Gulcasa’s personal ability is enough to overcome any kinds of setbacks of ingredient quality or unfamiliar cooking tools.

            And so, I stand up.
            “—Eh?”
            Oddly.
            The world tilts at an unnatural angle, and I slide sideways when I’m halfway onto my feet, my legs crumpling beneath me.

            “Nessiah?!”

            …I don’t understand.
            I don’t understand the panicked look on Gulcasa’s face, but more importantly, I don’t really understand why I could not stand up.
            I’m not injured.
            The bruising from last night has recovered well enough to go on with.
            So why—?

            No matter how I try to push myself up, the muscles of my thighs and calves are not responding.
            They tense and writhe uselessly, but they will not support even my own meager weight.
            “Eh—?”
            Now that I think of it.
            My breathing is too harsh.
            The beating of my heart inside my chest is frantic and uneven, and there’s a sensation of something crawling underneath my skin.
            My oversensitive skin aches, and the glyphs that have been carved into my flesh burn and contract like living things.

            “Ah, eh?”
            My vision blurs.
            An unfamiliar sensation.
            I close my eyes tightly, overly aware of the action of blinking.
            Even when I open them, the objects before me slide in and out of focus.
            Something inside me hurts.
            Like something that doesn’t belong in my body is trying to find its place in the small hollows in my abdomen, in between the organs.
            There isn’t much space, so the heat and nausea and crawling sensation can’t be helped.

            I breathe deeply and try to calm myself.
            The foreign sensation that’s violating my body is something that I must simply bear until the time that I can figure out what’s causing it.
            Then I can determine whether it’s something to ignore or investigate further.
            But even my sense of left and right, of up and down are inverting.

            “Nessiah—!”
            Oh.
            My face is taken between rough, kind hands and tilted upwards.
            Gulcasa comes into focus immediately in front of me.
            He touches the side of my throat as if to determine my pulse, and then feels at the joint of my jaw and runs the back of his hand across my forehead.

            “—What the hell.
            “Nessiah, you’ve got a fever.”
            Gulcasa’s words pull me back into myself.
            The discomfort remains.
            But beyond that, I can at least concentrate and move.

            “—I’m all right.”
            “Bullshit.
            “You can’t even stand, don’t bluff to me right now.”

            I shake my head and carefully push his hands away.
            “It’s passing.
            “—I’ll be all right in a moment, so don’t panic. Listen to your Master.”

            Gulcasa narrows his eyes like an angry lion and snorts.
            “If you think I’m too dumb to have figured out that your word is inherently suspect when you’re talking about your own physical condition, you’ve really got something else coming.”
            I sigh.
            His hands have settled against my upper back and the side of my waist, supporting me.
            He’s overreacting, but I can at least understand why that is.
            And beyond that, it must have been a shock to see me stumble.

            “Gulcasa, you’ve already determined that we’re going to stay in tonight anyway.
            “This should either pass or become manageable if I eat and have a good rest.”
            I’m being reasonable, but I don’t think he’s convinced.
            …This is simultaneously the good thing and the bad thing about Gulcasa. He cares very much for others, but once he starts worrying it’s very difficult to make him stop.

            And no matter what this is, it’s not something that I can explain just yet.
            I knew from the beginning that my body wasn’t suited for this.
            After all, it’s not like this was my own choice.

            But if there’s anything guaranteed to make Gulcasa panic, that’s probably it, so I’ll keep quiet about it for just a little bit longer.
            …I’m sorry.
            I think that in the depths of my heart where he won’t be able to read it on my face, and promise absentmindedly to myself that I’ll explain things in full later.

            “—”
            Gulcasa continues to give me an uncertain-looking stare, but he sighs again.
            “Well, whether you’re being forthright or not, our options are limited.
            “…I’ll help you with the food, and then you’d seriously better lie down and take it easy.”

            …I try to move in a way that doesn’t betray my foggy consciousness.
            The rich taste of the stew manages to cut through the confusion and the pain somewhat.
            With Gulcasa’s hand at the small of my back, I make it through two and a half bowls.
            After that, I lose my ability to really move all that much.
            A deep fatigue settles over my body, both from the amount of food I’ve eaten and from trying to bear this inexplicable oddness in my limbs.

            “I’ll finish the rest, so don’t worry.”
            Gulcasa, who has not touched his own portion yet, speaks out of the blurry world.
            “Here. I’ll help you get settled down, so don’t push yourself.”
            …Even if I had wanted to, I’m beyond protesting.
            I give up trying to pick out objects and just close my eyes.

            In that instant.
            I lose my awareness and fall into the quiet oblivion of sleep—

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            The transition was an odd thing to get used to.
            It was the first time that he had really had someplace that could be considered a “home”.
            Looking back on things, it was a rather Spartan place to live, as the new quarters that he and his friends were given was after all a military barracks.
            But he had his own room, with a real bed that he was able to have to himself.
            Actual furniture, like a desk and chairs and a set of drawers in which to keep his few possessions.
            There was a real kitchen with decent equipment at which they traded off turns for cooking, like all the other chores to maintain the building. With that real kitchen came decent food supplies.
            It was the first time that he could remember really being provided for.
            Too, he and his friends received salaries for the first time.

            They had responsibilities, of course; they did not simply receive without having to work in return. Their employer was not so lenient a man.
            Within the first few days of being installed in their new lodgings, he and the others were expected to begin training new soldiers.
            They all had to learn to give orders and work in groups.
            It was bewildering.
            The days passed in a haze of surprise and mild unease as he waited for the other shoe to drop.
            It didn’t.
            After a while, the discomfort of settling into his new way of life eased away.

            And with that came their real job—undertaking missions that their landgrave employer assigned unto them.

            After having escorted the landgrave to the capital city on business, watching him deal with the emperor, and then nearly coming to blows after an incident on the way back, his opinion of the man began to settle.
            Basically, the landgrave was incredibly frustrating to deal with.
            He was stubborn and intelligent, had very strong opinions on what should be done with the government and the country, and had extremely high expectations.
            Furthermore, he didn’t like to be disobeyed, and became harsh and irritable during arguments.
            The first time it actually happened was on the way back from the capital.
            Passing through another town at night, they came upon a scuffle in which two young girls were being chased by soldiers.
            He hadn’t liked to see people in distress.
            It was his usual inability to ignore those in pain, and so he mobilized their small army to beat off the girls’ pursuers.
            But at that time, the landgrave had ordered him to refrain from doing battle, as they did not know enough about the situation.
            In the end it all turned out in even the landgrave’s favor, as the girls were the adopted children of that town’s deceased ruler, and if they joined the army under his protection, then he would be able to assume control of their land—

            But even so, he knew: The landgrave did not like having been disobeyed.
            When they returned to the barracks, he was told as such.
            …At that time.
            He was barely even able to hear, his body flooded with adrenaline and panic, preparing for the blow that was sure to come.
            But.
            The landgrave never raised a hand to him.
            He was arrogant and fussy and cold, and was forever trying to see how he would be able to use any given situation to his benefit—but he was a very fair-minded man.
            He believed in the power of words over the power of violence, and his integrity was such that he would rather obtain obedience through force of personality than corporal punishment.

            It was the first time that an argument with an older man had not led to his being struck.
            …At the time.
            He had been so afraid that even though he attempted to hide it and seem strong to defend his point, he had probably been pale and shaking.
            After the interview, he felt so ill that he had to go lie down to settle his panicky nerves and churning stomach.
            But.
            He’d never been hit.
            And he began to realize mentally that physical violence would never be a thing that this man used against him.
            …It was very subtle at the time, and he probably didn’t realize it consciously.
            But even so, he who had never had an adult to guide him began to desire that nobleman’s respect.

            After that, the time they spent away from the barracks slowly began to increase.
            He set out with his men in order to try to find a supervisor for their training.
            The landgrave had suggested a certain border patrol officer, a knight.
            …That man was about the age of the former vigilantes, and aside from that he had been involved indirectly in something of a scandal not long ago.
            If he could be recruited, he might eventually be trusted with their ideals, which could be seen as rebellious if misunderstood.

            But when he and his friends finally found the knight in question, he knew right away that it wasn’t going to work out.
            The knight was too volatile.
            Some of it was definitely just that his personality was problematic.
            But that wasn’t all of it.
            He was hard on his soldiers to the point of threatening execution for small mistakes, and even though his deputies tried to calm him down he wouldn’t listen to reason.
            When interfered with by the landgrave’s men, he refused to let the insult of the hindrance go and picked a fight with them, inciting the young captain’s bad temper.
            …And then after the two sides came to blows and the knight lost, he ran and hid in his quarters out of the shock.

            While the imperial soldiers and the newly-formed private army rested, he had the situation explained to him.
            That the “scandal” the landgrave had mentioned was the execution of the knight’s parents on baseless suspicion of treason.
            The knight himself was considered guilty by association, but rather than being killed, the emperor had had his face branded and ordered him demoted.
            It was true that perhaps from an outsider’s perspective a man like this, a victim of the empire’s injustice, would be an ideal ally in combating it.
            But the young captain knew.
            Someone who had been hurt so badly, and who had never been given shelter, was like a rabid dog biting at anything that came near out of terror and misdirected hatred.

            And he also knew.
            That if his two best friends had not been there to give him safety and solace from a young age, there was a high probability that he might have turned out just as indiscriminately violent as this knight now was.

            He couldn’t help it.
            Someone so empathetic that he could not bear even the implication of injustice surely could not have done anything else.
            Anger at the man who had insulted him wasn’t even an option; instead, he had a strong desire to try to heal his former opponent, even a little bit.
            To communicate that even after losing so much, there was more to the world than pain.

            But it wasn’t to be.
            His power was still too paltry a thing, and the knight’s wounds were still too raw.
            All he could do was look on, and watch as the knight parted ways with the army.
            That man’s path would surely be a harsh and lonely one.
            The distance between them was very small, but it was still too great for him to cross just by reaching out a hand.

            —Someday.
            If it was still possible, if they met again—he wanted to be strong enough, wise enough to be able to do something at that time.

            And so.
            Those days began slowly.
            Like great clockwork gears beginning to creak into motion after a long rest.
            The boy, who had begun running towards a goal he still couldn’t see, experienced another great expansion of the “world” within him—

 

            “—”
            I wake with a much clearer head than I have had in a long time.
            There are a number of things that I become aware of, slowly, one by one.
            It’s still quite cold, but I’m still wrapped up in various layers of thin fabric.
            What’s more, the stove is still burning very low, heating up the shack.
            And Gulcasa is lying beside me again, his arm a pleasant weight over my waist.

            “…Hm.”
            Last night.
            …My physical condition became rather strange before I finally fell asleep.
            And I know that I feel somewhat different today.

            It takes a bit of effort to dislodge Gulcasa enough that I can sit up, but after doing so the slightly cooler air helps me to think.
            …I see.
            There is a sense of something “missing” through the extra perception of Servants I have been given, and then a sense of “fullness” and “wrongness” where there was nothing before.

            “So… someone has already retired.”

            I say it aloud, tasting the words a bit.

            “—”
            It is still very early into the war.
            It wasn’t until two days ago that the battle even formally started.
            But even so, a Servant has already fallen.

            That is probably connected with what happened to me last night.
            …I had expected that there would be some ill effects, but not quite to this degree.
            Well, it all comes down to the fact that I am unsuited for this no matter how you put it.

            “Then, every time a Servant is defeated—”
            I have to factor into my plans that there will be some ill effects on my body.
            Perhaps I should be grateful that I have been allowed that amount of knowledge this early.
            And to top it off, at a time when only Gulcasa was with me.
            Now that I know, I simply have to brace myself to deal with dizziness and such during the times when Masters would be active.

            And, perhaps most importantly, when we are in battle ourselves it will probably become necessary to disable the enemy Masters before defeating the Servants.
            If they continue to attack even after their Servant has been defeated and I’m in such a state, that might become a bit problematic.
            I sigh.

            “—This will get to be troublesome.”
            “…What will?”

            Oh.
            Gulcasa, who had been asleep beside me when last I looked, is now awake and glancing up at me from where he lies.

            …Hmm.
            I’m still not sure how to phrase my explanation of what’s happening to me so that he won’t panic, so let’s leave that for a while.

            “I’m referring to what happened last night.
            “—If that ever happens again at a point when enemies are around, that might put an unnecessary burden on you in combat.
            “And, of course, you still do need me to back you up. You’ll have your hands full with the other Servants, and during that time I will probably be able to deal with any enemy Masters.”

            Gulcasa looks at me for a while, but he seems to accept my words.
            Slowly, he levers himself up.

            “More importantly, I’m sorry if I woke you by talking to myself.
            “—It’s a bad habit.”

            Gulcasa shakes his head, telling me that my apology is not needed.
            His long hair flutters, and his pale gaze settles on me intensely.
            “Are you feeling any better now that you’ve slept?”

            “—Yes.
            “The abnormalities are gone. I should not have any trouble today.
            “In fact, we should resume our search for other Masters, because the war is continuing without us.
            “…One of our opponents has already fallen.”

            Gulcasa stares at me, perplexed.
            “—You can sense that?”

            I shake my head.
            …It’s going to be difficult to explain this without really going into the details.
            But this is my burden to bear, and even though Gulcasa is my Servant I don’t want him to be involved with this if such a thing is possible.

            “…In a way.
            “I don’t sense Servants the way that you would, but I can sense that they ‘exist’, tethered to the world by the Grand Grail of Fuyuki and to the vessel of the Lesser Grail.
            “You can think of it sort of like cat’s cradle, the game that children play with string.
            “The two grails and the ley lines of the town are strings, and the existence of the Servants are extra strings that help make up the pattern.
            “To someone who is able to sense that pattern on an essential level, it’s obvious when a string is removed because that changes the entire pattern.
            “It’s like how a spider is able to sense any irregularities in its web.
            “It’s a sort of ‘extra sense’, and I can feel the magical topography of Fuyuki and how it changes, although it’s very difficult to explain the sensation.
            “Part of it is on a spiritual level, and some of it is also physical, like synesthesia.”

            “Hmm.”
            Gulcasa tilts his head to the side as if he is considering my words carefully.
            “So then, was the abrupt change in the pattern part of what caused your condition to get worse all of a sudden?”

            “—That’s a distinct possibility.
            “Of course, I only actually realized that one of the Servants is gone this morning, after I woke up and my head was clearer.
            “…It’s a little bit inconvenient; I don’t know which Servant has even retired, nor what’s happened to their Master.
            “I suppose if we had any way to check the news then we might hear about any recent murders or hospitalizations, but…”

            “Hmm.
            “Then, we could always check when we go into town.”
            Gulcasa says so reasonably.
            “We do need to go buy more meat for today, since all we have are those leftovers from yesterday afternoon, and you need to finish those for breakfast anyway.”

            …It appears that today’s schedule is being decided upon without me.
            “—All right.
            “Well, we need to go patrolling tonight at any rate, though. I won’t listen to any arguments about that.”
            “And I won’t argue as long as your condition doesn’t deteriorate again.
            “—I’ll go get water so that you can wash your face.”

            And so.
            Gulcasa nags me until I give in and eat the leftovers, and we go out as he has drawn up a new shopping list.
            Today is still cold, but the temperature has risen since yesterday, and I don’t see my breath every single time I exhale.
            Still, I wrap my body in my coat and stay close to Gulcasa as we cross the bridge.

            The sunlight glitters on the water, and Gulcasa’s long hair streams around us, sent fluttering by the wind.
            We don’t speak.
            He holds my hand, a soft point of warmth and connection as we walk.
            He’s probably concentrating on what kinds of food he wants to make for dinner more than where he’s actually going, and even I am wrapped up in my thoughts.
            …It’s a completely relaxing everyday scene, the kind of peaceful happenings I’ve been earnestly seeking for most of my life.
            I truly was foolish to have ever considered letting this go.

            But.
            This is only a temporary dream granted to me by the grace of the ritual called the Holy Grail War, nothing more.
            It’s not permanent.
            In order to keep this dream, in order to make it a reality—we must fight and win.

            We arrive at the marketplace in the middle of the day.
            And…
            “—”
            …There’s a familiar tall silhouette in the crowds.

            “—Ah.
            “It seems this place is getting to be a popular spot for loitering.”
            “Hmm, well, all I really have to say about the situation is that I’m glad she’s not stuck with her Master during the daytime.”
            Well, I’m joking around, but I agree with Gulcasa.
            It’s a little bit pitiful that Avenger can’t think of anything better to do than to roam aimlessly around in the marketplace, but if she can relax here then that’s good.

            …And.
            “Well, it’s probably foolish and sentimental of me.
            “—But even so, it’s a bit of a relief to know that the Servant who died last night wasn’t her.”
            When I glance upwards to evaluate Gulcasa’s reaction, he’s smiling at me.
            It’s also foolish and sentimental to think this, but even though knowledge of his character tells me that he wouldn’t mind my sympathies, I’m glad I’m not going to get scolded about it.

            “Hey.”
            Gulcasa calls out to her, and Avenger turns towards us as if it’s a surprise that we’ve arrived here, for all that she was probably able to sense us already.
            “You sure have got a lot of free time.”
            “I could say the same about you guys. You were just shopping yesterday, why are you here again today?”
            “Well, we haven’t got anyplace cold enough to keep meat so that it won’t spoil, so there’s no choice but to buy fresh stuff every day. Going out of our way to keep things cold for a long time would be a waste of energy.
            “—And what’s your excuse?”

            Avenger glances away and then shifts her weight.
            And.
            She smiles at us with mischief in her face.

            “—Well.
            “Considering that I don’t have anything better to do anyway…
            “…Maybe I was waiting around here, thinking that there was a chance that if I did, I might run into a certain stupid couple?”

            Oh.
            …I can feel my face starting to flush a little.
            She’s being sincere.
            Even I can understand that much, and that’s precisely why.
            …I suppose you’d call it an affinity?
            Anyway, she’s so much like Gulcasa and like myself that I can’t help but empathize a little, and she has that kind of personality, so I like her.
            So of course it affects me when she says something like that so honestly.

            “—Lucky guess.”
            Beside me, Gulcasa is smiling.
            “If you’re not actually here doing anything, then do you want to follow us around while we go buy meat?”

            “—Heh, you’re saying that as if I have any plans.”
            Avenger shrugs, and the movement sends a ripple down her long hair.
            But even though she’s smirking, she falls into step with us as we make our way through the market crowds.

            And so.
            The three of us make our way through the market as Gulcasa goes from store to store looking at the selections of different types of meat.
            “It’s a shame that there’s nothing I can really use to grill things, it would really be nice if we were able to get something like that done.
            “Even a shield and a sword and a fire pit would do, but I think that in this era trying to buy things like that would be even more expensive than trying to get my hands on an actual grill.
            “Which is too bad.”

            “—It’s the return of the cooking otaku.
            “Is he always like this?”
            Avenger asks me and laughs.

            “Well, his hobbies are cooking and worrying about everyone who’s in his care.
            “Micromanagement might be a better way to put it. The stress of looking after things and making sure that everything under his jurisdiction is going well is a kind of stress that he thrives in.
            “—Other kinds of stress are a different matter, but he has a special talent for making sense out of chaotic situations.”
            You could call that another kind of paradox.
            After all, Gulcasa is a demon, and so the kind of chaotic society where the strong eat the weak and must constantly fear for their safety should someone stronger than them come along would have been his, had his birth been a little bit different.
            But instead, he was raised in human society, and the kind of upbringing he had gave him his distaste for injustice—so he went in the opposite direction entirely and determined on his own that the weak had to be protected by the strong at any and all costs.
            And added to his natural charisma, he worked hard to become able to lead and take care of other people.
            This also exposed him to all the stress of taking care of large groups of people, starting from when he was the de facto leader of a small but steadily expanding army.
            By the time he became emperor, it wasn’t just a task that he was skilled at, it was one that he loved.
            Taking care of all of his allies, looking over the reports from the entire country and making time to go check on the people in each city, making decisions about construction and taxes and public functions, switching over to battle plans, dividing up what wealth the country had for distribution amongst the needy—
            And then falling into bed at a terrible hour, and then waking up at dawn to do the entire thing all over again the next day.
            He would drive himself to exhaustion repeatedly and even make himself sick quite often, and everyone who loved him was constantly worried.
            But at the same time, he was happy.
            The people respected his instincts as a leader and his authority and power, and on top of that they all loved him on a personal level.
            And when they were doing well, he was able to breathe.
            So of course, carefully managing his work as a leader became one of Gulcasa’s skills.

            …It always seemed like so much work that I was bewildered sometimes.
            I’ve been told that I also seem to thrive in chaos, but even though this is a self-evaluation here, when I’m seriously working on things it never seems like chaos to me.
            Whatever materials I’m using and my environment are always arranged such that I know exactly what to expect and exactly where everything is, and it bothers me when they get moved around without my knowledge.
            I don’t like surprises, and what’s more, I wouldn’t be able to argue back very successfully if I were to be called fussy.
            So there’s a significant difference between me—someone who has to have minute control over everything and fights against anomalous elements from outside until they’re how I want them—and Gulcasa, who adapts to unforeseen setbacks and changes very fluidly.
            I suppose you could call it the difference in our initial environments, too.

            “Well, anyway, it’s good that he has a hobby and I like to support him in it.
            “Cooking relaxes him, and he’s very good at it. To confess my true feelings about it, I’m so spoiled for having had his food that I don’t think I could ever be enthusiastic about things that other people cook ever again.”
            “…I see.”
            Avenger laughs.
            “You two are really well-suited for each other, aren’t you?”

            She has positioned herself on my other side, so that she and Gulcasa are working together to shield me from the residual cold.
            It’s not anything that they worked out aloud, she just started walking here naturally.

            “If you don’t believe me, then you should try it yourself.
            “—If there’s some means of making you dinner, you’ll see what I mean.”

            Avenger’s footsteps ring out spiritedly on the sidewalk.
            She’s in a good mood today.
            “Heh, I’ll have to take you up on that someday.
            “Don’t die until we can do that, okay?”

            Her face is full of mischief, but her words are honest.
            …I think by now I’ve grasped her character, so I can tell.
            To put it simply, Avenger is fickle like a cat.
            She is a self-concerned person who is kind to those she likes and hostile to those she hates, responds positively to kindness and negatively to cruelty.
            She balks against the orders of her current Master because she is not given the amount of freedom that she would like, and is treated without regard to her own needs.
            Avenger would do much better with a Master who would understand this and loosen the reins on her a bit.

            And so, I smile.
            “—Yes, that goes for you as well.
            “And really, do try to find a somewhat more suitable magus while you’re at it.”

            Avenger cackles.
            “Yeah, that does sound more and more tempting every time you say it.”

            …Today.
            The shopping doesn’t take quite as long as it had yesterday, and so we part ways with Avenger not long after that.
            Waving goodbye, we leave the marketplace, and despite her great height she melts into the crowd and disappears from sight.
            After a while, I even stop being able to sense her.

            Tonight’s dinner is again hearty and based on roasted meat.
            Gulcasa doesn’t skimp on the different spices, which he says proudly is sure to bring out the taste of the chicken and beef.
            He serves it with green and red pepper and even tomato cooked in the same spices, along with sticky white rice.
            It’s warm, and the meat isn’t so tough that it’s a problem chewing it.
            We clean the dishes together, standing side by side next to the old sink.

            …And.
            Now it’s time to take to the city streets again, and plunge back into the battleground of the Holy Grail War.

 

            It is deep night.
            When we cross the bridge again, the city of Miyama is asleep.
            “—”
            Gulcasa did not bother to change back into his civilian clothes, and is wearing his outfit from the time that he was alive without materializing his armor yet.
            He stands tall and walks in a steady pace, with his breath hazing out in a white stream.
            My own breath isn’t warm enough to be white in this half-baked night chill.

            We don’t talk to each other and just walk around, our senses on full alert.
            “—”
            “—”
            We weave down the streets like veins in a cadaver, and traverse the empty residential town, the result of the war five years ago.

            “—Ah.”
            And.
            My shoulder, the brand of my Command Seals, suddenly burns.
            There’s a strong sense of being close to “something”.
            Like one of the strings that makes up the cat’s cradle of this war is tense and vibrating.

            “—There’s something odd about this.”
            I whisper that into the air, but Gulcasa just shakes his head.
            “At this rate, they’ll definitely have sensed us too.
            “It would be smarter to go get them, since otherwise they’ll probably just chase us and might wind up finding our home base.”

            …Which is, of course, true.
            “—Gulcasa, be on guard.”
            He nods to me.
            In the blue light of the night, his plum-stained long red hair ripples like waves in a field of wheat.

            And so.
            I put magical energy into my legs, and together we run.

            We run into the great crossroads at the center of Miyama City.
            And standing there—,

            “Oh.”
            Are two vaguely familiar silhouettes.
            Small girls with their bodies swathed in white and blue.
            …I’ve seen those two before.

            “—His dolls, I see.”
            I was correct to suspect that at least one more Master would be one of that man’s pawns.
            But…,
            …flanking both of the girls is a tall female knight in armor.

            They are both overwhelmingly similar in stature, and even their armor is constructed in the same style.
            Beside the girl with bright pink hair stands a woman whose armor is decorated in blue flowers, and beside the girl with red hair is a woman with long black tresses.

            …Hm.
            Hmmm.
            …I see.
            I understand now.

            “—As expected of that man.
            “Well, he’s nothing if he isn’t shrewd.
            “But… it was Hisa-san and Nana-san, was it not…? Cheating isn’t a good way to accomplish your goals in a contest like this one, you know.”

            “Oh, it’s Aries-onii-chan.”
            The girl with pink hair cups her face in one hand.
            “Nana-chan and I aren’t cheating.
            “The Grail chose us both as one, so it’s not cheating, right?
            “We’re winning this war for our master, that’s what we’re here for, and he told us to get rid of you if we saw you.
            “—You shouldn’t have run away.”

            “Primea.”
            Nana is cowering behind her sister and her Servant.
            Her temperament isn’t suited for battle, and so surely these two were only deployed for their compatibility with each other.
            …Honestly, how crude.
            That man has always been rather careless and arrogant in his deployment of others as pawns.

            “…Nessiah.”
            Gulcasa, standing beside me, looks between me and the enemy as though he is having trouble reading the situation.

            “—It’s rather simple, Berserker.
            “Those two girls have twinned Magic Crests. It’s a copy of another magic family’s sorcery trait of ‘ore scales’, if I’m not mistaken.
            “And because of that, they’ve been dispatched as Masters in order to summon two Servants from the same class.
            “It’s bending the rules considerably, but I believe it’s been done at least once before.”

            “Hey, hey, Onii-chan, stop ignoring us already!”
            Hisa is sulking.

            “—Oh my.
            “First of all, my duties as a Master demand that I need to explain this situation so that my Servant can understand it.
            “And second of all, I don’t want to give any more attention than necessary to rude children who call me that.”
            Listening to her call me the name I discarded in such a voice…, makes my veins tighten and my heart race with the need for violence.
            Ahhh, if she calls me that again I don’t think I’ll be able to restrain myself from smashing her head in.

            …She continues to sulk.
            “But you called me Hisa, so it’s only fair, right—?
            “Call me Primea, you dumb meanie. Nine’s not a cute lucky number like seven, it’s bad luck, so I have a rule to kill anybody that calls me that, see?”

            “Similarly enough, my own creeds determine that I must kill anyone who calls me that.
            “—That person was killed a very long time ago.
            “I was born through that death. I would prefer you to call me Nessiah, young lady.”

            Hisa—Primea pouts.
            “Okay, you dumb meanie Onii-chan.
            “Are you going to keep ignoring us or are you going to fight us?”

            I look from Gulcasa to their Servants.
            …I think that there’s enough difference in ability that even outnumbered, he’ll be able to fight on even terms.
            “…You don’t need to hold back.
            “In fact, you should go all out, and strike them down as fast as you can so that they’ll learn better than to muddy up formal rituals by cheating.
            “I’ll handle both the Masters by myself, so don’t worry about me.”

            “—”
            Gulcasa doesn’t question.
            He straightens up, and with a pale shimmer like embers in the night, he is encased in his armor. He holds his Noble Phantasm lightly in his hands.

            “Tch.
            “—Fine, go get this jerk, Rider!”
            Primea yells in a petulant voice.

            The Servant at her side launches forward, and after a brief pause, the other female knight receives a nod from her Master and charges as well.
            Gulcasa pushes off the pavement with such force that it cracks slightly, exploding to collide with the armored shadows that rush to meet him.
            With the great power of fireworks being launched.
            He lets out a great shout and spins, flames flying off of his scythe to clash with his enemies.

            “Now.
            “Primea-san, if you would like to do battle then let us.
            “Your sister can join you or stay behind as she pleases.”
            “It’s ‘cause you’re like this that you’re in so much trouble with our master, you know.”
            Primea is still sulking, but she begins to walk forward even so, her hands out.
            …I know what to expect.
            These girls are “imitations” with highly specialized abilities, and so they are capable of one thing only with a few offshoot abilities as byproducts of that one thing.

            And so I begin to prepare my own spell.
            As long as I strike them down first, there is nothing for the “original” to worry about against “imperfect copies”—as callous as that might seem.

 

            “—Hey, hey, what’s this?
            “It looks like there’s something interesting going on.”

            And.
            From high up atop a lamppost comes a familiar voice.

            …I don’t know when she materialized herself there, but Avenger is standing and looking down upon the battle with an intrigued expression.
            “Since I’m free and everything tonight, even if it’s a boring match against boring opponents, I think I’ll join in. Consider it a favor.
            “—Heads up, Berserker!”

            She jumps down.
            Like a cat, entirely fickle and on a whim, throwing herself into battle on our side.

            “—Hey, how could you call us cheaters if you’re gonna go pull another Servant in out of nowhere?!”
            The small girl who was advancing towards me is angry.
            …Well, there’s really no wonder there.

            “It appears that you’re misunderstanding something.
            “—Primea-san.
            “Avenger isn’t my Servant. She has graciously arrived on her own, not acting on anyone’s orders, all based on her own free will.
            “Servants aren’t convenient tools, after all.
            “Avenger makes choices for herself.”

            “—I know that.
            “You don’t have to lecture me on Servants being people, Onii-chan.”
            Maybe because she’s still angry, she stamps her foot a little bit.
            “And that’s why your Berserker and even this dumb Avenger are gonna lose.
            “—Because my Rider and Nana-chan’s Rider are the best and the strongest team.”

            …Well.
            It’s an admirable sentiment, at least.
            And if she has no need for that kind of lecture, then I have nothing else to say to her.

            I gather up magical energy to the beat of the sounds of steel coming from the four Servants sparring with each other, and—

 

                        —The night is split with a sudden scream.

 

            “—”
            Immediately.
            Everyone stops.
            Gulcasa, Avenger, and the two female knights called Rider.
            The two doll girls.
            Me.

            …All of us turn in the direction of the bridge, which is where the screaming voice came from.
            It sounded like a young girl.

            “—We have to go.”
            I say so in a loud and authoritative voice, calling for an end to the battle.
            It is more important to find out what just happened.

            “—”
            When I pass by the group of Servants, Gulcasa immediately turns and falls into step beside me, with Avenger a pace behind him.

            “—H-hey!”
            At the startled voice Primea lets out, I stop and look back.
            The two girls look mystified.

            “You may either come along so that we might decide what to do later on, or you may go back home now.
            “—But it’s clear that something is amiss, and it is more intelligent to investigate what has happened than to wait for whatever it is to interrupt our battle.”

            There is no reply, but after I have resumed walking…
            …The physical presence of both Riders vanishes, and I can hear the running footsteps of the two girls.

            The situation becomes clear when we arrive at the park close to the bridge.
            The area is terribly scorched with the aftereffects of magecraft, and although the combatants are nowhere to be seen—

            There’s a girl.
            She seems to be about the age of these two cheaters, perhaps a little younger than them.
            Her body lies collapsed amongst the wreckage, but her chest is clearly moving, and so she appears to be alive.

            “—She still has an intact Command Spell.”
            But in this condition and with this result, it’s impossible to think that her Servant is alive.
            …As to why the enemy Servant and Master didn’t kill her, although there are plenty of possible speculations, it’s useless to think at a time like this.
            The facts stand that the enemy is gone, as even I cannot sense them, that her Servant appears to be dead, and that she herself is still alive.

            “—”
            Her body is small enough that I might be able to carry her, but not for any type of long distance.
            So.
            I turn to Gulcasa.
            “Will you carry her?”
            …My Servant is looking at me perplexed, with Avenger and the two Riders’ Masters loitering about in the backdrop.

            “—Nessiah, what are you planning?”
            “It’s obvious, isn’t it?
            “She’s lost her Servant, but she’s alive and still has Command Seals remaining.
            “She’ll be targeted by foolish other Masters if left alone, so we have to take her out of Fuyuki and into the neighboring town in order to treat her.
            “This girl will likely spend the rest of the war hospitalized; she isn’t a threat.”

            “We can’t do that.”
            Primea speaks in a toneless voice, a frown upon her small face.
            “Duh she’s gonna get targeted again, she can still make a contract with another Servant.”

            “…I see. Then, let me ask you.
            “If Rider were defeated, and you were left behind, then would you want to make a contract with some other Servant as a replacement?”

            Her reaction is immediate.
            “—Of course not!
            “My only Servant is Rider.”

            …Her insistence makes me smile.
            “—Well then.
            “I don’t think that a girl who fought this hard for her Servant and who made a noise like that at losing it would want to partner up with another unknown Servant, do you?”

            “Oh.”
            Primea stops to think about it.
            “I guess not.”

            “All right?
            “—Now, I’m not interested in fighting past this point.
            “If you’d like to attack me I’ll certainly fight back, but I would really rather go ahead and take this former Master to a hospital.
            “So I will fight you without any mercy at all.
            “Do you understand?”

            “—Primea.”
            The other girl, Nana, speaks up.
            “I think we should go home.”

            “…Hmm, okay.
            “Just for today though, you know? Next time, we’re actually gonna get to fight you and beat you, so we’re just being nice this once.”

 

            And the two young girls disappear into the night.
            …I let out a breath and return my attention to the unconscious Master.
            I don’t know which Servant she had partnered, but it is definitely gone from this world by now, and so I should count my blessings that they chose to retreat.

            “—We should hurry if we want to get to do this quickly.
            “Avenger, if you would like to escort us then I will not stop you.
            “But haste is important now.”
            “Right.”
            Gulcasa doesn’t question my words, and hoists the small girl up over his shoulder, his armor melting away from his body.
            He holds out an arm to me.
            …Good.
            I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him if we really were to sprint to the next town like this.

            …I mold myself lightly against Gulcasa’s body, and he supports me in the crook of his arm.
            I close my eyes.
            This will only take perhaps an hour.
            …If I’m right, then hopefully the time in transit will be faster than it takes for the effects of the second casualty to take hold—

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            That those days had surely been blessed—

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “—Um, excuse me—”

            And.
            We are interrupted by an unfamiliar voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            …She bows again, and then walks away.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            And I—,

            “—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Agh, damn—”
            “Rose!!”

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

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

            “—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(interlude 6-1)

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

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

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

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

 

            —And.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

            But he does not even get the chance for that.

            Berserker opens his mouth to speak.

 

                        “…Please.
                        “——Help us—”

(6-1 interlude out.)

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            The end of that era came as subtly as it came suddenly.
            It was a mission given to him by his employer like and unlike any other.

            …It turned out that despite all the progress that the private army had made, their employer was still unsatisfied.
            Like any politician, the landgrave wanted all the variables neatly in his grasp, organized so that nothing would be problematic when the time came to launch his silent takeover.
            And although the army was working to put out fires and eat up pieces of land for him to govern on a small-scale basis, that wasn’t good enough.
            …Especially with the out-of-control rebel army swelling large on the horizon.
            If there was any hope for maintaining and protecting order in the empire, they had to become able to cope with larger battles and take less damage doing so.

            And so, it was decided that a better strategist was needed.
            Conveniently enough, the landgrave had been eyeing a particular target for a while.
            …There was a certain man.
            Long years ago, he had traversed the empire and prophesied certain events.
            At the time the people had dismissed him as a sham, but after the prophet had left, everything he had said came true.

            Prophecy was a kind of magic that was commonly held to be “impossible”.
            The future was not a thing that was set in stone by any means.
            …So, the landgrave posited that perhaps the prophet did not accomplish the act of prophesy by magical means, but rather by a combination of instinct and foresight and detailed knowledge of human psychology.
            Surely, if someone with those kinds of skills were persuaded to join them, his ability to read the battlefield would be of great use.

            The young captain agreed.
            It was certainly true that they suffered in battles sometimes based on the tactical skill of the boy who thought up their plans, the boy who was his childhood friend.
            And beyond that, like his employer he also believed that it was about time for them to start reaching for greater heights in their campaigns to restore peace.
            Just saving a handful of people within his sight wasn’t enough, and never would be.
            Just looking at the handful of people reminded him of the hundreds of other faceless civilians who still suffered, and those who could have been saved if only he and his men had arrived earlier.

            —I want to save everyone.

            A beautiful, childish ideal.
            He knew that it wasn’t possible, but even so, he wanted to come as close as he could to really being able to fulfill it.

            And so he gathered his men and set off for the forest.
            According to the landgrave’s information, the prophet was living as a hermit in the center of the forest, where he wouldn’t be harassed by the kinds of ignorant laymen who had laughed him off as a fraud and chased him away.
            …That was a kind of injustice, too.
            He pictured it.
            The person who had offered visions of a future, asking for nothing in return, only to be scorned and attacked from all sides.
            Surely such an experience must have been painful.
            …In the worst case scenario, he might be leading his men to someone every ounce as bitter and untrusting as the knight they had once been told to recruit as a trainer.

            But the young captain was the only one who thought that way.
            The rest of his army—the rest of his friends—simply got excited and talked to each other about the prospect of adding someone else to their number.
            And his childhood friend, the boy who had been their tactician, sulked at the thought of being replaced, already nursing a grudge against the man he’d never met.

            Well, there was a chance that it was either.
            They hadn’t met the man yet, so no one could say.
            He could be the real thing, and resentful about his poor treatment, just as the young captain thought to himself.
            He could be a fake who had simply guessed right, and not really useful to their cause, just as his childhood friend proclaimed.
            Or he could be somewhere in between, a wise but lonely hermit with some skills that might be applied to their future direction.

            Deeper and deeper into the forest they ventured.
            When finally they made their way to the prophet’s manse, it was approaching sundown.
            The woods were deep and the heavy scent of foliage was all around, and the mansion they arrived at in the end was extremely old.
            It was like a place where time had stopped, a mysterious cold place with a palpable air of anticipation.

            And finally, they found him.

            The young captain had never been sure what he had expected to find.
            He’d vaguely imagined an old man based on the fairy tale-like explanation he had been given of the prophet’s history, but the person who appeared out of the trees was a youth who was perhaps a year or two older than himself.
            Incongruously.
            There was no way his actual age could match his appearance if he was the same person, because he had been active when the young captain had been a very small child.
            But from the way that he spoke, there was no mistaking that the youth was the prophet in question.

            He had an overly polite and mild way of speaking, but he had an air of assuredness that could even be called overconfidence.
            And even from a distance, the young captain could see that he smiled like he had a secret that he wouldn’t tell.
            A vast magical aura and a delicate body hidden in voluminous robes and heavy chains.
            …The prophet listened to their request that he join them, and stipulated that they must first prove themselves worthy of wielding his powers.
            He summoned ranks and ranks worth of undead soldiers, displaying his skills in high necromancy as well as prophecy.

            Some of the young captain’s allies were perplexed, and his childhood friend the erstwhile tactician was disgruntled…
            But the captain himself couldn’t help being intrigued.
            The man before him was a puzzle.
            And his instincts were telling him that if they could just convince this person to join their cause, then surely they would obtain much greater power than before.
            Their capabilities would change in an instant.
            His dream of eradicating injustice would come closer to his reach.

            And so, he volunteered his army to undertake the trial.

            The battle was long and hard.
            As far as matters of strategy went, this certainly proved that the prophet had great skill in manipulating armies, for each squadron of undead soldiers was directed with the precision of pawns on a chessboard.
            So he was convinced.
            It had been worth his time to come this far.

            …When finally he rode his charger through a gap his people had opened in the prophet’s defense and closed in to finish things—
            When finally he came into close quarters with the prophet for the first time, he noticed belatedly that his heart had begun to pound ferociously in his chest.
            He didn’t understand it then.
            Not his feelings of anticipation, not his racing heartbeat, and certainly not the way that when he returned to his senses after disarming the prophet and pinning him against the nearest wall, he became overly aware of their proximity and began to blush.
            …It was a strange sort of disease, a sudden onset of awkwardness that overtook him upon coming close to the prophet for the first time.
            He found his gaze captivated by the man’s deft gestures and secretive smile, his false gentleness and the wicked intelligence beneath it.

            …And so, at the end of the long battle.
            Having passed the test, and with emotions blooming wildly in his heart that he couldn’t put a name to, the young captain took the prophet’s hands in his.
            —They would go together from this day onward.

            There were voices of dissent, of course, but the young captain ignored them.
            …The fact was that even knowing the prophet was contrary, the captain still liked him.
            An instant and irrational affinity.
            And—a sense of kinship that he couldn’t hope to explain in words.

            “I want to be near you.”

            Words so simple that he didn’t know how to convey them yet.
            Quietly.
            Destiny was set irrevocably in motion, so softly that no one realized it.

            This is his—this is “our” memory.

 

            “—…”
            And I wake.
            …I don’t know where I am.
            The blurry white ceiling that meets my gaze when I open my eyes is not one that I have ever seen before.
            …But it doesn’t matter.
            There is a profound sense of sorrow, of other feelings that I can’t even hope to describe, resting heavy in my chest.
            So much so that tears build up in my eyes and spill over, blurring the world before me until I can’t make sense of it.
            …The tears don’t stop.
            My body is so warm and so heavy that I can’t even raise a hand to wipe them away, and they won’t stop.

            …Gulcasa.
            I want to see you.
            I have so many things—that I need to say to you.
            But there’s nothing that I can do other than lie perfectly still, and continue soundlessly to cry.

 

            There is an end to everything eventually, and so even my tears dry up without my having to do anything about it.
            And slowly, my awareness of my surroundings increases.

            …I’m inside a house, lying on a bed that’s incredibly soft compared to the place that I’ve been sleeping up until now.
            There’s a sense of security and the walls are solid.
            Furthermore, it’s warm. So much so that the past week or so seems like a joke in comparison.
            I should get up and try to check on my surroundings a bit more, but not only do I feel nice where I’m lying, there’s an extreme heaviness in my entire body.
            My left shoulder stings periodically, but other than that there is no pain.
            It’s just that even turning my head to the side takes a lot of energy.

            “Ngh.”
            Even when I try my hardest, I can only get up on my elbows before my body collapses awkwardly and I land back against the mattress.
            …This is an annoyance.
            At least there’s no pain, but I’d like to be able to support my own weight and get around.

            “…Nessiah?”
            Oh.
            That’s Gulcasa’s voice.
            When I make an effort and turn to see where the voice is coming from, I see Gulcasa standing in the doorframe.

            …And from what I can see of the area around him, this bedroom is actually decorated fairly lavishly, almost as if we’re inside some kind of mansion done up in a baroque style.
            “…???”
            This is only getting stranger and stranger.
            …What’s going on here?

            “—Are you actually awake?”
            I attempt to nod, but that doesn’t really work.
            So I try my voice instead.
            “…Yes.”
            A croak comes out, and I become aware that I’m rather thirsty.

            Gulcasa lets out a great sigh and smiles at me as if relieved of an immense burden.
            “—How do you feel?
            “Does anything hurt? Are you still tired?”

            “I’m all right, but—I’m having a little bit of trouble moving.
            “I suppose I’m a bit thirsty, as well. I’m really not in pain, but—I’m not sure what’s going on here… where are we?
            “Last night—it was last night, wasn’t it? We were fighting Lancer, but I think I started to hallucinate and then I collapsed, and… what happened after that?”

            Gulcasa sighs again.
            He looks much more at ease, but his expression has sobered a little.
            “…I took a risk.
            “You needed actual care, and no matter what, we couldn’t depend on anyone who doesn’t have a connection to this Holy Grail War.”

            “So—”
            “…Yeah.
            “I thought of the woman we met too, but even though she seemed to have some sort of magical energy, she wasn’t a Master.
            “So I thought we couldn’t drag her into this after she was so kind, and I relied on my instincts and took you here instead.”
            “…Gulcasa.
            “You haven’t answered my question. Where is here?”
            I can work out for myself that we are probably in the residence of some other Master from the way that he has phrased things so far, but that’s all.

            Gulcasa fidgets.
            “…Don’t get mad, okay?
            “I already hate myself enough to die for having to make this choice, and if you get angry I won’t know what to do anymore.
            “—Just, making sure of your safety came first for me, and so I couldn’t make any other decision.”
            He looks at the ground and murmurs, clutching at his sleeve.

            “…I won’t get angry.
            “Even if your decision doesn’t seem to make any sense from my point of view, I promise that I will hear you out and consider your reasoning before I get angry at you one-sidedly.
            “So—please explain things in a way that’s less confusing.”

            “…Well.
            “I guess the first thing to say is that we’re with another Master, at their home in Shinto.
            “…I knew it would be bad to just take you back to the shack in the condition you were in, and I decided that these people were our best bet, so I searched for traces of them and figured out where this place was.
            “I think the best way to explain everything else is just to show you, and this way I can get you food too, so I’ll carry you downstairs.”

            Still looking extremely sheepish, Gulcasa walks up to my bedside and lifts me with gentle hands.
            My head comes to rest on his shoulder.
            His body is warm as usual, but along with his own vaguely smoky scent, I can smell that his clothes have been freshly laundered.
            …The mystery just keeps getting deeper.

            Gulcasa carries me outside of the room with a steady gait, careful not to step too roughly and jostle me from my seat in his arms.
            It’s a little bit annoying that my limbs just dangle aimlessly and that I can’t really move them too well.
            All I can do is look at the slightly gaudy decorations of the mystery house as he carries me down the stairs.

            We travel through a foyer and then into a kitchen, and then Gulcasa sets me down on a plush sofa, sitting on my other side as if to support me and keep me upright.

            “—Oh, so I see he’s awake.”
            And.
            I can hear a familiar voice from the direction of the kitchen.
            When I fight hard so that I can turn and look, there’s a young man who I vaguely recognize leaning on the kitchen counter.
            …His Command Seal is clearly stamped upon the back of his hand, and his brown hair is tied loosely at the nape of his neck.
            There is no hostility in his posture or in his blue eyes, and he looks at me neutrally as if I am no more than a temporary guest in his household.

            …No, all the hostility is coming from his Servant, the blond girl who peers around another doorway in distrust.
            The object of her glare is not me, but Gulcasa.

            …Hmm.

            “—Gulcasa.
            “I did promise that I wouldn’t get angry at you, but I would certainly like to hear your reasoning. What led you to decide on Saber and her Master’s residence as the best place to take me?”
            …Oh.
            He freezes up guiltily beside me and doesn’t say a word.
            Once I have turned to him, he just looks at his hands unhappily.

            “…Yes, you certainly shouldn’t get angry at your Servant.
            “The first miracle was that he even found this place, since there was no way he could have had knowledge as to where Saber and I live.
            “And the second miracle was that he was able to carry you here before it was too late. Your condition was very bad, and you might have died if you hadn’t had a skilled magus help to suppress your convulsions.
            “…I wouldn’t call this third one a miracle, but from there on you were still lucky. I have enough skill with healing magic that I was able to regulate your body somewhat.”

            …I do realize all of that.
            Still, I wait for Gulcasa’s answer. Calmly, and without getting angry.
            I promised him.
            So I will hear him out.

            “…Well.
            “From my perspective it was a matter of logic.
            “Those two girls we fought had a bad affinity with you, and you said that the magi we were fighting last night were allied to your enemy.
            “Avenger is our friend, but we’d never be able to ask her Master for help.
            “Two Masters left the battlefield already, and the one remaining that we haven’t seen or heard of is your enemy, right?
            “So her Master was the only person remaining.
            “…And from the time we fought… it looked like the two of them got along.
            “I just thought that if they got along, then Saber’s Master probably cared enough about fair play that he would be able to put aside the fact that we’re enemies and save you.”

            “…I’m shocked.
            “Well, I probably shouldn’t be, but this has just reminded me again that you’re entirely too trusting for your own good.
            “Luckily for both of us, things worked out well this time, but I would be able to rest much more easily if one day you would realize that other people aren’t always as kind as you are.”
            “I’d rather believe.
            “…Well, having your expectations betrayed hurts, but it’s still better to be betrayed than it is to betray others.”
            “That’s reckless self-endangerment. I can’t even yell at you to only do that kind of thing when you’re the only person who’ll suffer the repercussions, because even if you’re the only one harmed by your own recklessness the people around you will also suffer.
            “—I can understand and accept your logic, but I still have to remind you that this was horribly reckless and that next time you should think twice before you risk it.
            “…Speaking as someone who can still vividly remember being killed by that woman, I have to say that you have as little common sense as ever.”
            Gulcasa sighs.
            “I can still remember being killed by her pretty vividly too.
            “—But I didn’t know what to do other than trust my gut instinct. It’s worked out this time, so forgive me already.”

            “…It’s not a matter of forgiving you or not forgiving you.
            “My gratitude for your quick thinking and bravery has been canceled out by my constant dismay at the problems with your personality.”
            “Nessiah, that hurts when you put it that way.”
            “Then I’ll rephrase myself.
            “—Your judgment was right this time, and of course I’m grateful that you saved me. But at the same time, thinking about how badly this could have gone wrong is making me feel sick, so if there’s ever a situation like this again then please don’t endanger yourself like this.
            “If you die, then there’s no meaning in any of this.”

            “…That goes for you too, you know.”
            Gulcasa says so quietly, but I pretend I don’t hear it.

            “Well, now that you’re done yelling at your Servant, I suppose it’s time to turn to more practical matters.
            “How are you feeling? I’d like to follow up on my treatment from last night.”
            Saber’s Master gets up from the table and comes to kneel on the floor beside me.
            He takes my hands and lightly touches at the inside of my wrists as if to feel for my pulse.

            “Well, obviously I’m feeling better, being as I’m conscious now and not hallucinating.
            “I don’t feel feverish, and the malaise that’s been bothering me for a little while is gone as well. If there are any symptoms and such to be measured, I suppose the only things of note are that my body feels rather heavy and because of that big movements are rather difficult and tiring.
            “—It’s frustrating to admit it, but I don’t have much faith right now in my ability to walk for long distances while properly supporting my own weight.”
            “I see.”
            Saber’s Master sets my hands back in my lap.
            “There’s not much that I can do other than continue to examine your body periodically and administer medicine and basic spells.
            “…I’d like to have a more detailed look at you sometime later tonight or tomorrow, when you’re awake and able to answer questions. It feels to me as though the prana in your body is somewhat odd, but right now I can’t get a more detailed read.”

            He stands up and smiles apologetically.
            “…You said ‘tomorrow’.”
            I can’t help but get caught on that detail.

            Saber’s Master, to his credit, doesn’t try to evade the topic at all.
            “—Yes.
            “It would be incredibly unwise to send you back out into this weather; it’s raining hard and very cold. Your Berserker mentioned that the two of you had very poor shelter, and that’s only going to aggravate your condition, so you’ll need to stay indoors in order to recover.”

            Honestly, how troublesome.
            I can’t deny it, though.

            “Now then.
            “Since we’re all gathered, we may as well have something to eat. Yg—Saber, please come in so that we can talk about dinner.”
            The blond girl who’s been glowering at us from around the corner walks into the kitchen and takes a seat at the table, still giving us a freezing stare.

            “—By the way.
            “You don’t have to call your Servant by her class name if it would feel more natural for you to use her given name. After all, we already know the identity of each other’s Servant.”
            “O-Oh.”
            Saber’s Master laughs a bit sheepishly.
            “You’re right about that. And—I’m sorry, Yggdra.”

            So.
            As it transpires, it’s already nighttime and it’s time to prepare dinner.
            Saber’s Master—whose name has turned out to be Roswell Branthèse, which gives me the satisfaction of knowing my guess of “descendant” turned out to be correct—originally offered to cook, but.
            Predictably—

            “—Well, we’re intruding on your space anyway and there’s no way for me to repay you but this, so please let me cook instead.”
            Gulcasa volunteered himself with serious, sparkling eyes.
            Both Roswell and Yggdra stared at him, the latter quite unflatteringly.
            “I can’t possibly ask you to go to that much trouble; besides, it wouldn’t be fair to ask you to cook when you don’t even know what I have in the pantry and refrigerator.”
            “It’s okay, I’m offering because I really want to.
            “And, um, even if I do say so myself, I have complete confidence in my ability to make a dish that will make you acknowledge your decision is correct, no matter what kinds of food I’m working with.”
            …And this left Roswell at a loss and Yggdra even more suspicious, so it fell to me to step in.
            “You may as well let him. I’ll tell you right now, he’s not exaggerating when he speaks of his abilities like that.
            “—If anything, he’s being modest.
            “Besides, I believe he wants to play with your kitchen equipment.”
            With Roswell even more nonplussed and Yggdra staring at us blankly, Gulcasa turned to me and fidgeted.
            “If you put it like that it makes me sound as if I’m not serious at all.”
            “But it would be untruthful to leave that part of your motivation out.
            “I don’t know that much about cooking, of course, but I can at least tell that our gracious hosts’ kitchen is a much nicer one than the one in the shack.”
            “—Roswell, you can’t let him.
            “This will throw off our schedule, I was going to use those new cookbooks to prove my aptitude to you tomorrow morning.
            “And besides, I can’t see this man managing to produce anything that’s not awfully roughly made, so you can’t.”
            “Oho.”
            Gulcasa, forgetting his embarrassment completely at her words, turned back around then with his arms folded and a look of superior disdain on his face.
            “So the little princess is getting off her duff and actually putting her back into something for the first time, huh? Congratulations are in order, it seems.
            “—But there’s no way that I’m going to force Nessiah to subsist on any failed attempts you might come up with. When someone’s health is on the line, amateurs need to step the hell down and let people who know what they’re doing take over.”
            At his words, Yggdra puffed up even more in rage, but Gulcasa just got up from the sofa and headed into the kitchen on his own.

            “Everyone listen, then. From this night forward until I say otherwise, this space has been claimed in the name of the New Bronquian Empire, and anyone that wants to contest it will have to prove their culinary skills so that I’m satisfied—”

            —And ever since then, His Majesty has been happily playing with the vast stove and oven and indoor grill top.
            He’s apparently emptied a significant amount of Roswell’s stores in order to put together a great feast.
            Meanwhile, Yggdra fumes at him from the table, clearly outraged at the nerve of him.
            …And the actual owner of the kitchen is sighing with his head in his hands.

            I have not got any comments to make on this, really, so I just keep quiet and watch.
            …Gulcasa seems happy, and whatever he’s making smells good. That’s really all that’s important to me here.

            “—Here.
            “No one should have any complaints about this, so everyone eat until you’re full.
            “There’s more than enough for seconds and even thirds if anyone wants more.”

            Grandly.
            Gulcasa lays out dish after dish on the Western-style tall table.

            “—”
            “—”
            Roswell and Yggdra stare at the dinner that’s been prepared for them as if they don’t understand what they’re even looking at, and Gulcasa helps me to the table.
            I show him that I can still manipulate utensils well enough, and then he takes the seat next to me as I start eating the grilled and lightly seasoned chicken in small bites.
            …I am actually surprisingly hungry, although that’s probably to be expected given how long I was asleep.

            “—This really is good.”
            When Roswell says so wonderingly after sampling the dish of steamed pumpkin, Gulcasa just smiles.
            Not with an air of superiority, but out of pleasure at having been complimented.

            The princess at the end of the table is biting her lip while stabbing her utensils into her salad bowl, sulking like a little child.

            And.
            Suddenly, after taking a big bite, she goes extremely pale.
            She makes a choking noise, grabs a napkin, and coughs into it while holding it over her mouth to spit out what she almost ate.

            “—Yggdra?”
            Roswell pauses in eating to look at her with alarm.

            “—!!”
            The princess slams the napkin and her utensils down onto the table and launches herself out of her seat.
            Her entire body quivers with rage.
            There are tears at the corners of her eyes, and her puffed-up cheeks are red.

            “M, mu—”
            “…Muh?”
            Her Master looks at her quizzically.
            “Mushrooms!!”
            She slams the table again and spits the word like it’s a curse.
            “Mushrooms! There are mushrooms in this salad!
            “I can’t believe you! How could you do such a thing?! That’s disgusting!”

            Gulcasa sets his own utensils down, all the happiness gone from his face.
            “—What’s your problem?
            “Mushrooms are one of the healthiest things there is to eat. They’re good for your physical strength, and they go in plenty of different dishes and compliment all of them. They even have variable texture based on what they’re in.
            “They’re good for you, so eat them.”

            “Never!!
            “How dare you even suggest that to me! Mushrooms are vile, poisonous and slimy, they suck the taste out of everything and even the thought that I had something so vulgar in my mouth is making me want to vomit!”
            “—Sit back down in that chair and eat.
            “It’s food that someone else made, so you need to accept it with gratitude.”
            “I swear on my sword that I will kill you if you ever repeat such an insult to me again!!”

            Gulcasa stands up.
            He says nothing, but he is bristling with suppressed violence.
            The two Servants’ intent to kill clashes and rebounds throughout the room.

            And.
            As hard as I try to suppress the laughter, it just bubbles out regardless of my own intentions.

            “—Eh?”
            “Ah.”
            Gulcasa and Yggdra both look at me in bewilderment.
            As if they don’t even know where they are or what they’re doing.
            The expressions they wear are so similar that it’s even funnier.

            “…There really are some things that never change.”

            Immediately.
            At my words, the both of them sit down almost ashamedly as if finally realizing where and when they are.

            …The rest of dinner passes in peace, with the two sheepish Servants saying little.
            Yggdra still refuses to touch the salad, and Gulcasa still seems displeased about it, but the both of them refrain from shouting at each other again.
            …I probably shouldn’t be this amused or this proud.

            “Well, likes and dislikes aren’t things that anyone can help.”
            Roswell smiles peaceably and says so with finality.
            “Yggdra, we were treated to dinner and all, so we should take care of the dishes.”
            …The princess sighs and complies without whining out loud, and Gulcasa takes the opportunity to carry me back to the sofa.
            Somehow, we actually managed to eat all of that food, and Roswell at least seems suitably impressed by Gulcasa’s abilities.

 

            “—Now, there is one thing that I’d like to propose.”
            It is after dinner and clean-up, and the four of us—two Masters and two Servants—sit in the living room.
            Roswell steeples his fingers together and looks at me seriously.
            “Go ahead.”
            “I’ll cut straight to the point, although I’m sure Yggdra won’t be pleased with this.
            “—I’d like to propose an alliance between us.”

            “Hoh, that’s quite bold.
            “The princess sitting next to you certainly seems displeased, but please elaborate. Why suggest such a thing with us, especially since our Servants were enemies in life?”
            …Roswell smiles and shakes his head slightly.
            “Well, a part of it is that I do necessarily know about Berserker’s abilities due to my knowledge of Yggdra’s history. The two of them together would certainly be a formidable force, as they are among the strongest Servants summoned in this war.
            “But there are other strategic factors as well. I know that you have good battle sense and great power, and unlike me you’re capable of at least some form of close-range fighting. In exchange, I can heal, even if my skills are still rather unpolished in that area. That will surely be of use to you.
            “I do have to admit that our Servants’ enmity might make working together difficult until they can learn to cooperate, but there’s the saying ‘better the devil you know than the one you don’t’, after all. That problem will be out in the open for us to deal with.
            “…On a less strategic side, I must admit that now that I’ve treated you I don’t think I have it in me to just leave you alone or chase you out of this household for as long as there are still problems with your body.
            “We can offer you food and shelter, so what do you think?”

            “—Well, that’s not something I can decide entirely by myself.”
            I look to Gulcasa as he sits beside me with a serious expression and folded arms.

            But.
            “Nessiah, I think we should do it.”
            “—Oh? That’s unexpected.”

            He sighs and runs a hand through his hair, causing the red to catch the light and flare into bright tones of ruby and flame.
            “Ordinarily, yes, I’d have a lot to say about possibly having to cooperate with the princess here, but I think I’ve said this to you before.
            “My priorities right now are different from before. This isn’t a war where I have to worry about defending a country, avenging my loved ones, or protecting my own honor. The only thing I care about right now is your well-being and making sure you survive through this war.
            “No, I’m not happy having to pair up with the woman who raped my land, slaughtered my people, and killed me. But if by doing that I can guarantee your safety, then I will deal with it even if it’s unpleasant.”
            “…How mature of you.”
            He gives me a look as though he thinks I’m just making fun, then shrugs.
            “The matter of Saber aside, I think we can at least trust Branthèse.
            “It’s a curious tendency amongst really devoted healers to have a lot of respect for life and well-being, particularly of their patients. Even the occasional really twisted doctor would still try to defend a life that wanted to be born, be it a human child or a monster stained against its will with all the evils of the world.
            “So, someone who was as gentle treating you as this guy probably wouldn’t go back on his word and attack you unless you were in a position to fight back.”

            “That’s quite the appraisal.”
            Across the room from us, Roswell has an expression like he doesn’t know whether to be bashful or perplexed.
            …Well, if I hadn’t seen it demonstrated myself when this person was checking on my condition, I’d dismiss Gulcasa’s words as his being far too trusting, but in this case I believe that he’s right.

            “…All right, then I have one question to ask.
            “Roswell Branthèse. We’ve deemed you trustworthy, but the only concern that then remains is to ask you if you think you can restrain your Servant from killing us again.
            “It was unpleasant the first time, and it will certainly be unpleasant if she tries to do that again, particularly because we will have to break our alliance and attack you directly to stop her from killing us.”
            “That’s a bit dishonorable, but yeah, I agree with my Master here. We’ll lend you our power and wisdom if you can keep the murder princess there under control.”

            “How rude.”
            The murder princess herself sulks.
            “—I can obey my Master’s directions to not attack you, even if I don’t like or trust either of you. So just don’t threaten Roswell.”
            And, hearing this from his Servant, the Master of Saber smiles.
            “I don’t think you have to worry.
            “Even in the worst case scenario, I still have Command Spells to hold over her head.”

            I can’t help but smile a little at the disgruntled expression that she makes.
            “—Then I accept your terms.
            “We’ll gladly impose on your hospitality for the rest of the war.”

            Roswell smiles.
            “All right, then, I suppose we’ll leave you two to things like deciding which rooms to sleep in.
            “Once that’s finished, we’ll revise the cooking schedule to include the two of you.”
            “We’ll share a room, so there’s no need to worry about that.
            “Also, I’ll do everyone here a favor and give my share of the cooking slots to Gulcasa; I know enough to give up straight away when I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination for something.”

            …Like that.
            Finally, about a week into the Holy Grail War, Gulcasa and I are able to attain real residence.

            “—Then, about the war itself—”
            After the trivialities have been dealt with, the atmosphere becomes extremely serious upon those words being spoken.

            Because we are the ones being sheltered, I first tell Roswell and Yggdra everything I know.
            …That there are nine Servants, and that I have identified all the remaining participants but three.
            About the two Riders.
            That I am certain that three Servants have already been defeated, one of the Riders and two Servants out of Assassin, Archer, and Caster.

            Hearing this, Roswell narrows his eyes and rests his chin on his interlaced fingers.
            “—Nine Servants.”
            He speaks in a voice that doesn’t know whether to be frustrated or awed.
            “We’d figured by now that something about this Grail War was odd beyond how quickly it began, but to think that nine Servants were able to be summoned.”
            “…From what I’m aware it should have been eight, but the Riders’ Masters have sister Magic Crests and were able to exploit the same loophole as the Edelfelt family once did.
            “I know a little about those two girls, so I expect the Master who left the battle to still participate to support her sister. Their thaumaturgy is based around a particular oddity that leaves them able to do battle but unfit for study, after all.
            “—And those two Masters, as well as the Master of Lancer, are the pawns of the war supervisor, who is almost certainly a Master himself.
            “I don’t know if you’ve come into contact with the man at all, but no matter what, contact with him must be avoided at all costs.
            “He is a powerful magus and a deadly opponent, and is extremely treacherous. Even if for whatever reason we are eliminated, I would suggest lending our power to any possible friendly magi and keeping him from obtaining the Holy Grail.”

            “—About the two Masters who were eliminated.”
            Roswell speaks up.
            “We encountered her, so from the news report following the discovery of the corpse I’m certain: The first Master who was defeated was Assassin’s Master.
            “She was killed with powerful thaumaturgy that burned her body badly, but from the limited amount of description the news gave about the sex and age of the victim I am sure it was her.
            “…Also, the magus with a defeated Servant whom you rescued was probably Archer’s Master.
            “As to why we know that, it’s because we had arranged a meeting that night in order to negotiate terms for an alliance, but she never appeared.
            “—So, we should thank you for getting her out of harm’s way.”

            “That leaves the only unaccounted-for Servant as Caster.”
            Gulcasa rests back and sighs.
            “And if Nessiah is right, that puts Caster as our personal enemy’s Servant. If this guy’s as powerful as Nessiah makes it out to be, then there’s no doubt that Caster is a strong Servant as well.”

            “From a standpoint of deducing the killer of the three defeated Servants.
            “—You weren’t involved with any of the defeats, and neither were we.
            “The image that I had imposed last night is fading a bit, but I know that the Servant was female—in addition to which, I think it would be unusual for such self-righteous magi as Lancer’s team to kill an enemy so brutally that they couldn’t be identified, as with Assassin’s killer.
            “The Riders wouldn’t turn on one another, which also rules them out.
            “And from our dealings with Avenger and Yellma, I’d say that at least Assassin couldn’t have been defeated by them, because Yellma’s sorcery alignment wasn’t wind.
            “You said that her body was burned, so she had to have been killed with electricity or fire.
            “—So that leaves Caster, who is still unidentified and whom neither of us have met.
            “Given my knowledge of her Master, she has probably been dispatched on her own, because it would destroy his cover and standing if he were to be encountered by any of his pawn Masters.
            “—They’re just there to pad the numbers out and to act as insurance for him should he run into trouble anyway, so it wouldn’t be troublesome if one or two of their Servants was defeated early.”

            “—”
            “—”
            Both Roswell and Yggdra stare at me with wide eyes.

            “That’s an impressive train of logic, and definitely sounds plausible.”
            Beside me, Gulcasa nods; from the corner of my eye I can see that he has a proud expression.
            “Nessiah has always had a reputation as being brilliant at reading people, and it’s well-deserved precisely because of this.
            “Whenever he gets serious, his margin of error is very low, and in times like these he’s never led me wrongly.”

            …Gulcasa.
            If you praise me so effusively, I’m going to have to vomit out of guilt.
            …I won’t admit it in front of Roswell and Yggdra, but—his words hurt like stabbing rusty blades into already-open wounds.
            Those are things that can’t be taken back.
            But no matter how well I understand it, my desire to take them back is something that cannot be erased.

            “—I wouldn’t pin all our strategies on my evaluation, because there is a considerable chance that I’m wrong.
            “My enmity towards Caster’s Master could be blowing my estimation of them out of proportion, so that needs to be taken into account as well.
            “It’s just that we should probably move from now on based on the presumption that Caster may be on the move, that she may not be with her Master when she is, and that hence we must stay away from the general area of the supervisor’s church at all times and at all costs.
            “As a strategist, that is the best advice that I can give you.”

            “That’s more than we had to go on before, so I’ll gladly take those cautions.”
            Roswell nods seriously.
            “Since you still need sleep and I’ll have to monitor you then, we’re not going to patrol tonight and neither are you, but we’ll have to check the news to see if any other deaths turn up as well.
            “We can discuss our future course of action tomorrow.”

            …And that is how our first joint tactics meeting is concluded.
            Gulcasa and Roswell decide on their own that it’s time for me to sleep, and Yggdra continues to watch us through pensive eyes.
            The day comes to a close as Gulcasa carries me back up to the same room I spent last night and the lion’s share of this day sleeping in.

            When I’m laid down on the bed.
            …I remember again that there was something that I had to say.

            “—Gulcasa.”
            I catch the end of his sleeve as he stands up, and even though I can’t get a very good grip on him due to my drowsiness, he stops and looks at me.
            “I know that just me saying so is too little and far too late.
            “But—I’m sorry, for everything.”

            “—”
            With blank eyes.
            Gulcasa tilts his head at me as if he doesn’t understand what I’m talking about.

            “Nessiah, you idiot.
            “You’re sick, and that’s not really something that anybody ever asks for.
            “Like I said earlier and like you got mad at me about, coming here and joining up with Roswell and Saber was my choice. I decided it on my own, so you bear no responsibility in any of this.”
            “—That isn’t what I mean.”

            He tilts his head further and narrows his eyes as if trying to decipher small print without wearing glasses.
            “Then explain it to me, because I don’t really get it.”

            “…Gulcasa, you don’t have to play dumb.
            “Every night since I first summoned you, I’ve seen your memories in my dreams.
            “That means that you should also be seeing mine.”
            Minutely.
            I can see his eyebrows raise, but then the next moment he kneels down at my bedside so that we are closer to eye level.

            “—It’s certainly true that I’ve been seeing some of your memories, and because of that I think I can understand you a little better than I did before.
            “But, Nessiah.
            “Nowhere in any of those memories have I been given any reason to want you to apologize to me, you know?”
            …He smiles.
            Easily and kindly.

            “—”
            His expression blurs and swims against my vision.
            …It’s because I’ve started to tear up.
            It isn’t something that I can help.

            “Shh.
            “Go to sleep; you really need to rest.”
            “—”
            While I am still unable to speak, Gulcasa leans in and kisses my forehead.
            Perhaps because of the things he’s just said, the hot press of his lips against my skin causes my heart to thud hard against my ribs.

            …I know that my face is probably red, and because I don’t think I can meet Gulcasa’s gaze without starting to cry, I just close my eyes.
            “…I don’t deserve you.”
            I never have, and most likely I never will.
            …The fact that despite knowing this I still refuse to let go of him speaks volumes for both my selfishness and my unworthiness, but I won’t let even that stop me.
            Because—Gulcasa is the only chance I have now.

            “…Nessiah.
            “It’s not a matter of deserving or not deserving, you know?”
            When I risk a glance at him, he’s standing there with his hands folded over his chest as if in prayer.
            “The initial reason I became attracted to you may have been because of love at first sight, but it was my own choice to try to get closer to you and act on those feelings.
            “I chose you of my own free will. And you chose to answer me in kind.
            “—So deserving and worthiness and things like that don’t have anything to do with what’s between us. I care about you and you care about me, and that’s enough.”
            “—”
            “Stop worrying about dumb things and go to sleep.”

            And so saying, he touches my face lightly and then leaves my bedside.
            The lights go off in the next moment.

            Even my turbulent emotions can’t win against the heaviness and exhaustion of my body.
            And so I close my eyes, and the day ends quietly—

Chapter Text

            This is the story of the one I love.

            …Well, you can dress it up in fancy words all you like, but the long and short of it is that there was a horrible war once.
            If you know anything about war, you know that they’re never about something as pretty and clear-cut as good and evil, but this one comes close. It was a war between order and chaos, pure and simple.
            Even though the world as we know it needs both to keep existing, neither side was really good at understanding those things. The closer you are to a conflict, the harder it is to see the other person’s perspective, and so on.
            But putting that aside for now.

            Anyway, it seems like the forces of order were about to lose.
            They were outnumbered, overpowered, and finally they had lost their only advantage, which was tactics; the enemy had gotten smarter after having been outwitted time and again.
            The truth that nobody’s going to deny is that a world that’s ruled almost entirely by chaos is a harsh and hostile one in which only the strong can survive.
            So, the forces of order needed a way to win.
            They made one themselves, by cheating and creating a race of super-soldiers, each with the power of a god.
            Even if the gods of order themselves disappeared because they had broken their own rule, the most important thing was that order could continue to exist.

            …Well, about those super-soldiers.
            They were the ultimate trump card, but because of that, the only thing important to the forces of order was their power.
            They had been created to win the war, and would serve as the ultimate weapon to drive chaos back.
            But just like mortal lives can’t thrive in chaos, they can’t thrive in order either.
            And even the most powerful super-soldier is still essentially “human” per se if it’s a thinking, feeling lifeform.
            …You could make all the excuses you want about the stresses of wartime, but it would’ve happened even if there had been no war.
            Their hearts fell through the cracks.

            As long as they were obedient to the cause and behaved like weapons, no one cared, and the individual minds and emotions of those soldiers got magnanimously ignored by the gods and the people of order.
            But if… just if, say that there was one of them who questioned their orders and thought for themselves. Someone who wouldn’t just quietly do as they were told, someone with a busy mind and a contrary nature, someone who didn’t want to fight and die in the first place—

            It was an inconvenience.
            And the world of order had no use for such a dangerous inconvenience.

            So—they punished him and threw him away.
            It’s a simple, easy-to-understand story when you don’t dress it up as anything else.
            It was an injustice that common and everyday.

            He was young, and smart, and felt really strongly about his choice.
            …But those were all things that cornered him in his helplessness and his fear.
            I think he probably broke a little bit inside.
            …And, of course, the harshness of reality never stopped bearing down on him.

            His own powerlessness, and the casual cruelty of everyday, ordinary humans—
            He was exposed to that kind of poisonous stuff over and over.
            In the first place, he’d never been exposed to anything but that.
            …So.
            I think it’s probably still an excuse, but it’s not hard to understand why he came to believe that his only means of defending himself was to use others and harm them in return.
            He lost what little faith he had in people, and when he was faced with the choice between protecting himself and getting revenge or starting to set his burdens down in order to be happy, he was afraid and didn’t know what to do.
            Happiness was a transient thing, and he had worked for revenge for so long.
            If he didn’t get revenge, he would spend the rest of his life in fear of being found and punished yet again.
            …He cornered himself even further by thinking things like that.

            And in the end, he messed things up just a little.
            He couldn’t decide quickly enough and was pushed into the mud, left to crawl again in the depths of despair.
            The person who had been so outspoken against the war he was born to fight wound up only ever creating more and more wars.

            That he never gave up just goes to show exactly how scared and stubborn a person he was.
            The type that digs their heels in for long fights and holds grudges for whole lifetimes.
            It was both his frailty and his strength.
            At the same time, he was so wise and yet so stupid.

            What I want to know is—how am I not supposed to love a person like that?
            He fought so hard for so long, got lost and fell, wandered in the darkness and stumbled back onto the right path just a little late.
            I can see myself reflected in actions like those; I can see what’s admirable about them, and I can see what’s pitiable.
            I can’t think of a person like that as anything but dear.

            …So, it’s a really simple story.
            And it makes me so angry I just want to scream until I cry, and cry until I throw up.
            This is exactly the kind of injustice that pisses me off the most.
            …But.
            It’s a story so old that doing that now wouldn’t have the meaning it should.

            This is the story of the one I love.
            No matter how strong I am or how strong I get, I’ll never be able to change the past.
            What’s already happened can’t and shouldn’t be taken back.

            The only question I have to worry about is how to protect him and make him happy from this day on—

 

            I wake up without even a hint of drowsiness.
            Having this kind of form is convenient in ways like this. Before, I probably still would have been really tired this early in the morning, even though I was able to wake up shortly after dawn by force of habit.
            To borrow the terminology of the era, for me as I am now sleeping is like being put into power save mode or something like that.

            At any rate, I wake up.
            “—”
            My idiot Master is still dreaming, lying still and breathing deeply.
            Good.
            As long as he’s asleep, he’s not getting into trouble, so I can probably leave him be for a little while.

            Since this is still the house of a magus and we’re not going outside, there’s no need to get dressed in the modern clothes that have been prepared for me.
            What with there only being two outfits, I’m hesitant to get dressed anyway because that will just mean I have to wash them, and I’m not sure where the laundry materials are.
            —I’ll have to ask Roswell sometime when the princess isn’t roaming around.
            So I just materialize my normal clothes and leave the armor off, and then head out after closing the door behind me quietly.

            It’s probably rude to our host to think this, but this house is decorated so gaudily that I can’t help feeling uncomfortable.
            …No building really needs this much decoration unless you have to impress people. It’s better to just have the things you need, and maybe one or two ornaments if you like stuff that looks nice.
            Uh, I just think that if you have enough money to buy this kind of ornamentation then you should be using it for something better, like helping others who are in need.
            I think I’m going to start having flashbacks of the castle immediately after the revolution at this rate.
            By the way, I seem to remember there being some people who wanted to keep the stacks of gaudy things, but of course I said no, and we sold it all.
            I say “we”, but I didn’t have much to do with it personally as I was still too inexperienced in managing the treasury at that point.
            Still, it was baffling how much treasure my idiot predecessor managed to get his hands on given the financial condition of the country and public opinion of him.
            How did he have enough to buy that kind of stuff, and why did people keep giving him such gaudy, useless things? Or was it all hereditary treasure?
            Jeez, it’s not nice to badmouth the dead, but it’s no wonder that the imperial family wound up the way that it did with its poor taste and its selfishness.
            ……Ugh, if I keep thinking about this I’m going to give myself ulcers and a headache.

            “—Sigh.”
            At any rate, I finish walking down the stairs and walk into the kitchen.
            …Oh.
            Damn it, it looks like Roswell got here before me.

            “—Oh, good morning.”
            The magus who’s already cooking breakfast smiles at me politely.
            …Hmm, I don’t know how I feel about this.
            Roswell seems to be a nice guy, but even though I’m aware how stupid it is, I already feel territorial about the kitchen.
            Uh, I’m aware that I lost my temper and said stupid things last night, but if I can’t follow up on things that I get myself into, it feels a little like I’m betraying my responsibilities…
            If I said I want to make sure Nessiah gets appropriate nutrition that’s really bad; it feels like I’m just using him as an excuse. But there is that too.
            Most of all, I just really want to play with all the high-quality equipment a little bit more after having to resort to cooking in fire pits and such for a long time.

            “You don’t have to be so on edge; Yggdra is still asleep.”
            Roswell’s smile has become apologetic.
            It seems that despite his resemblance to that woman’s pet magus during our lifetime, Roswell personally sees himself in the position of third party when it comes to my fight with her.

            “—Well, it’s not really about that.”
            I can’t complain about his house after he agreed to take us in, but—
            “It’s a little frustrating thinking that I didn’t wake up early enough.”

            “Oh.”
            He bites his lip as if he’s suppressing laughter.
            …Good. If you actually laugh at me I’m going to get mad.
            “I’m sorry.
            “But—actually, for whatever reason Yggdra has decided that she wants to try cooking while she’s here. It’s not out of spite or anything; that’s why we had our schedule set up to alternate what meals we’re cooking even before you two came here.
            “And it just turned out that this was actually your hobby, too.
            “I can understand your wanting to do something you like and your desire to prove yourself in front of a rival, but I think that sticking to the schedule so that all three of us are able to use the kitchen equally will be better for keeping the peace.”

            …Damn it.
            “I know. At least, I understand it all in my head.
            “—Sorry. I must seem pretty immature, losing my cool over something that’s already over and done with.”

            Roswell shakes his head.
            “Don’t say that. You’re a Heroic Spirit who’s been summoned with the general state you had when you died, so even if you know mentally that it’s been a long time since your battle ended, it’s perfectly understandable that your enmity still feels so immediate to you.”
            …Man, being told that just makes me feel guiltier, so don’t.
            “Anyhow, it’s going to be a while before it’s time for breakfast.
            “You didn’t get the chance to take a bath last night, so you can go ahead and use the shower if you’d like to. I’d imagine that with hair that long, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to wash your hair and your body at separate times if we’re going to conserve water Japanese-style.”

            This guy is a little bit like Nessiah.
            I mean, in regards to his understanding of other people, at least.
            There was my desire to look after Nessiah last night, and also not wanting to let my guard down too much with that princess roaming around the house.
            With both of them asleep, this should be my time to relax, but I’ve been denied the opportunity to cook and I can’t help but feel uncomfortable because of the décor.
            “…Yeah, I’ll go ahead and do that. Thanks.”

            So.
            I leave the kitchen and go back up the stairs to the bathroom.
            It’s a wide room with a tiled floor, a shower stall for taking quick showers, and a movable showerhead on a long cord for washing one’s hair and body before actually taking a bath.
            The tub itself is also very large and deep, to the point that I think I’d be able to stretch my legs out and really rest and relax inside it.
            The room’s sink and cabinets are filled with different kinds of soap and hair care products that I don’t really know anything about, and whose functions I can’t necessarily guess just by looking at them.

            “…Well, I can at least guess that the pink ones with cute shapes on them aren’t Roswell’s.”
            If I use them it might make her angry, but then again when I open the bottles there’s an oppressively sweet scent that wafts out, so no thanks.
            “Let’s see, was it shampoo and conditioner?”
            I know a little bit about this age because the information is just delivered to us when we’re summoned as Heroic Spirits, but just because I have the information in general doesn’t guarantee that I’ll understand it.
            And the print on all the bottles is really tiny and hard to read… I wish I had glasses to read it with, even though I know that would just wind up giving me a headache.
            …Oh, but maybe with the technology in this era, it would be possible to get me a set of glasses that would work right and not hurt my eyes?
            Nessiah and my court magister said that it’s rarer for people to have trouble seeing small things close up than to not be able to see things far away, and people didn’t know how to make glasses that were perfectly adjusted for me, so that was why I couldn’t wear glasses for a long time, but I’m sure that in such a convenient time as this it wouldn’t be so unrealistic to hope for something a little better made.
            …Ugh, I just hate reading tiny text because it always gives me a headache whether I’m trying to puzzle it out without glasses or hurting my eyes with glasses that are too strong.

            Anyhow, I waste about twenty minutes or so getting lost in thought like an idiot.
            Once I know how I’m supposed to use these things, it’s not hard at all to pick out the ones that seem to be Roswell’s and then move over to the movable showerhead.
            I dematerialize my clothes and do my best to turn the water on.
            “—What the hell, it’s actually hot.”

            In my surprise, I forget to control my voice, and amazed words bounce back and forth across the tiled walls and floor.

            So.
            I waste another five or ten minutes trying to make it so that the showerhead will put out enough water that I can actually realistically wash my hair.
            And as usual, washing it takes a little over half an hour.
            The only thing I don’t like about having long hair is that it’s not very practical.
            Cleaning it is a pain, and if you’re not careful about how you move you’ll wind up sitting on it or getting it caught in things. It can get a little bit hot in summer, it’s frankly not fun to have when the weather is humid because it sticks to everything, and on top of all that it gets dirty quickly.
            I always used to get asked why I kept it like this.
            …Come to think of it.
            Out of everyone I ever became close with, I think Nessiah was the only person who never asked that question.
            And that’s because he already understood.

            It’s never—been about the practicality.
            Cutting my hair would be the easy way, and if I cut my hair because of my own fears, I would just keep being afraid, even now.
            …Really, it’s a matter of my own pride and stupidity.
            I don’t want to give in to the memories of my hair being an easily targeted weakness, something that others could always use to hurt me.
            Although, even now I don’t know what I would do if anyone ever went out of their way to try pulling me by it.
            It’s something that Nessiah already understands.
            Even when the people who hurt you aren’t there anymore, your memories and your fear are still oppressive, the body’s natural defense system to keep you from actually suffering that kind of abuse again.
            The fear is rewritten forcibly into you, a constant companion and reminder of your own weakness.
            It’s impossible to blame someone for experiencing that fear.
            But if you want to be able to keep the fear from making your choices for you, every day is a constant battle.
            …It’s like a weight.
            I carry my life’s failures with me every day, like stones in my chest.
            Not being able to save my loved ones, not being able to save myself.
            None of it can be taken back anymore.
            …My battle is to overcome all of that, to learn from it and succeed the next time, but no matter how hard I fight there are days when I come close to being overwhelmed. Days when it’s hard even to raise my head.

            But.
            …Even though we lost each other for a little while.
            Having Nessiah at my side then, and having him there now—just that there’s someone who understands all of this without my having to try to put it into words—I can’t even begin to articulate how that has saved me.
            How, even now, it continues to save me.

            “—Sigh.”
            Ten minutes to get my hair wet, ten minutes to work shampoo and conditioner in, and another ten minutes to rinse it all out.
            It’s long and it’s tedious, but it’s a ritual that’s determined by my pride.

            I turn off the showerhead, put the things away, and stand at the center of the room, away from everything else.
            I close my eyes and concentrate the heat in my body.

            “Hup.”
            It’s a little difficult to control, but it makes me happy to be able to use my power for mundane little things like this, so I think I’ve become quite good at it these days.
            I channel the heat of my blood through my body in just a split second’s worth of flame.
            Heat flashes through me in the form of red fire, and then dissipates.
            And thanks to that, most of the water in my hair evaporates, leaving it smooth and slightly damp rather than totally sodden.

            …There.
            I rematerialize my clothes and am finally able to depart the bathroom.

            It is mid-morning.
            I can smell breakfast, and I can hear two voices from downstairs.
            …Well, I guess I should go wake Nessiah up so that he can get something to eat.

            “Nessiah.”
            I head into the bedroom and call out.
            …He’s still lying in bed, exactly how I left him.
            Well.
            I prepare myself for a long battle in trying to make him get up, but at the same time I get an odd premonition.
            “—”
            When I get close.
            …He’s breathing heavily.
            His eyes are not fully closed, and I can see just a slight flicker of green from between his eyelashes.
            There seems to be sweat on his skin, and even in the low light I can tell that his pale skin is reddened a bit.

            “Nessiah—”
            Just touching his forehead and his shoulder confirms my fears.
            Even I can tell that he has a fever.

            …He isn’t getting any better at all.
            If anything, his condition has just relapsed to something nearly as bad as it was when I brought him to this household—

 

            “—”
            “—”
            “—”

            The three of us sit tensely in the living room.
            Roswell just got back from examining the patient, and has folded his hands and is looking at the floor as if trying to decide how best to explain.

            He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, then sits up straight and folds his hands, putting them in his lap.
            “—Berserker.
            “…No.
            “Gulcasa. ……I don’t know how to preface this or how to make it sound like anything other than deadly serious.
            “I don’t even know how to apologize. I don’t know if this is something that I can treat properly.”

            …I can’t sit and panic.
            I’ve already been dazed with worry all day, and the sun is about to set.
            Roswell is doing his best.
            And whatever is wrong with Nessiah’s body, I can’t do anything unless I’m able to sit still and accept the truth first.

            “That’s fine.
            “Just go ahead and tell me.”

            Roswell narrows his eyes and averts his gaze from me, staring into the corner of the room.
            “Nessiah’s illness isn’t an actual sickness per se.
            “And I don’t know what’s caused it, let alone what to do about it.
            “There’s something extremely strange about the way his Magic Circuit is acting.”

            “—?”
            Well.
            I at least knew that no matter how much Nessiah kept trying to pass it off as not a big deal, his sensitivity to this area and the Servants was making him have bad reactions to sudden changes in the existence of Servants, or something like that.

            “…I don’t know what could be causing this.
            “Nessiah’s body is oversaturated with prana. His Magic Circuit is on and won’t turn off, and his body itself is producing far more od than is natural.
            “There aren’t any pathogens in his body at all. His fever and the unresponsiveness of his nerves are his body’s attempt to respond to the problem.
            “It’s a poor analogy, but you could compare it to allergies.
            “The human body has a complicated and specialized immune system that is capable of dealing with all different kinds of pathogens. And there’s a particular part of the immune system that’s supposed to attack parasites.
            “Allergies occur when that part of the immune system starts reacting to harmless substances other than parasites, and sometimes the body can even react so strongly that the shock can kill a person.
            “—What’s ailing Nessiah is a little bit like that, but in reverse. His physical body doesn’t have a way to cope with his overproducing prana, and so it’s attacking itself futilely in an attempt to cut that overproduction off.
            “His nerves are hopelessly violated by this point, and whatever has set his Magic Circuit into overdrive isn’t disappearing.
            “So, he will continue to produce prana for as long as his Magic Circuit directs, and his fever will continue for as long as his body contains too much prana.
            “This isn’t natural. No kind of god or devil, no angel or demon or spirit that I’ve heard of has ever had such a perverse Magic Circuit.
            “He can’t process this. It’s no wonder he’s having trouble moving. If this continues and he has no way to get rid of all the extra prana built up in his body, he’ll probably start to lose his human functionality.”

            “…And what does that mean?”
            I feel cold.
            I don’t understand any of this, not really.
            All I know is that my gut feeling that Nessiah knew he was in serious condition but didn’t want me to realize it was right all along.

            Roswell stops gazing off into space and looks at me directly.
            His eyes should be the same warm blue as the sky, but for some reason they feel incredibly cold right now.

            “…I mean that there’s a chance he’ll artificially lose the ability to walk and move his body, his five senses, and even the means of waking up.
            “In the worst case scenario, he will simply exist as a prana-producing tool until the source of his abnormality disappears.
            “It’s not that his nerves will be cut and he will not be able to do those things in reality.
            “His body will just shut those things down one by one in order to keep them from being violated by his out-of-control prana and destroyed for good.
            “Our bodies already have psychologically-imprinted limiters on them.
            “Our jaws have got enough strength to shatter the bones in our fingers when we eat with them, but the brain automatically suppresses that to protect our hands; similarly, we can only use a low percentage of our potential strength because otherwise the effort would tear our muscles and tendons or even detach them from our bones.
            “So, just like that, Nessiah’s brain will shut off his ability to function as a ‘human’ in order to keep him alive.
            “A psychological block like losing the ability to speak because of emotional trauma.
            “…It’s not certain, but it’s likely, and becomes likelier the longer his body is kept in this state and the more prana builds up in it.”

            “—”
            My head is reeling.
            I feel stupid.
            My mind can’t process the words that keep washing over my body like dirty water, and I just vaguely understand it.

            But there’s no time for that.
            My only priority is that Nessiah survive this war, and so I have to decide what I can do in this situation.

            “—If he gets rid of the excess prana.
            “If he can do that, will he get better?”

            Roswell sighs.
            “That would only be a stopgap measure.
            “His physical condition might improve slightly, but it would have to be done regularly until his out-of-control Magic Circuits could be returned to normal.
            “It’s like bailing water out of a ship with a hole in it. You can get rid of some of the water and stabilize the ship so that it doesn’t sink, but the ship will keep taking on water until the hole is stopped up.
            “And on top of that, the hole might get larger so that the bailer couldn’t keep up with the amount of water.”

            “—But buying time is still better than nothing.”
            There are ways to keep Nessiah using prana.
            For instance, there’s the fact that I’ve stayed materialized almost continually ever since my summoning.
            There are more direct methods to get rid of a lot of it all at once, but I’d have to talk to Nessiah about that kind of thing before I try it; it’s not something I could do without his agreeing to it first.
            Even if it saved his life, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I violated his bodily autonomy too badly.

            “Anyhow—there was something else too.”
            Roswell’s brow creases, and he folds his arms.
            “—There’s something odd about Nessiah’s body.
            “The Command Spells are all still engraved where they’re visible, but there’s something rather like them branded into his body invisibly beneath his skin, directly into his flesh.
            “They’re magical glyphs that are very complex and very old.
            “My instinct tells me that they probably have something to do with the abnormalities in his body, but I don’t even know what they really mean, let alone what they do individually.
            “I wouldn’t dare interfere with them until I can understand them, and they’re so old that they’re extremely difficult for me to comprehend.”

            “—”
            There’s a sharp pain.
            I realize that I am biting my lip in frustration.

            I remember the first time I saw Nessiah’s empty eyes.
            …Right now—he doesn’t have to rely on his other four senses and his magic to make up for what he had to sacrifice.
            And because of some malfunction in his magic, his circumventing his old disability in this body has been rendered meaningless?
            You have to be fucking with me.

            “…Gulcasa.
            “Even if I don’t understand Nessiah’s condition fully, I do know that this could be fatal if we make a wrong move.
            “Whatever is happening to his body is beyond my comprehension, but we can’t take risks if we want him to survive.
            “You have to keep him here and out of the fighting as much as possible, if only because he will make an extremely easy target if he leaves this place.
            “—Yggdra and I will continue to fight.
            “The Grail can be completed with seven Servants.
            “Nine of them exist, so we can easily win without having to harm either of you.”

            Roswell speaks in a calm, steady voice.

            “—It isn’t natural.”
            And my own voice shocks me with its lack of shaking.
            I want to shout, and it feels like I should be fighting back tears.
            “I’ve experienced Nessiah’s memories in my sleep.
            “So I know. Over thousands of lifetimes, Nessiah has never gone through anything like this.
            “—Which means.
            “This is someone’s doing.”

            Nessiah’s enemy.
            …I don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle yet.
            And from what I know, I’m not sure enough to make a guess.

            All of Nessiah’s memories that I’ve seen are of his birth, his life until we met, and our memories together.
            Mixed with delirium and a vast abyss of despair that come after our parting.
            …So I can’t fully grasp the situation of what it is he fears.
            But in a few more nights, I know that I’ll be able to understand anything.

            Even so.
            Even not knowing the whole story, I can tell.

            “…Someone did this to Nessiah purposefully.
            “Whatever is wrong with his body—there’s a chance the thaumaturgy itself will be destroyed if we kill the one who did this.
            “And if someone did this to Nessiah, it’s probably his ‘enemy’.”

            Roswell sighs.
            “…Just sitting here and talking isn’t going to solve much of anything.
            “Gulcasa, I’ve left Nessiah alone for now, but before we decide on what else we’re going to do you should check on him.
            “Yggdra and I have a war to fight, and you have your own priorities.
            “Those should be focused on protecting Nessiah rather than just trying to kill a shadowy enemy that you don’t know anything about.”

            “—”
            I know that Roswell’s words are correct.
            But.
            …Protecting Nessiah from his condition and protecting him from the shadowy fear that’s been oppressing him all this time…, are probably the same goal.

            The quiet sounds of rain fill the house.
            The weather has probably taken another turn for the worse while we sat here, and it’s now nighttime.

            I stand up and make my way back upstairs.
            …But.
            When I enter our bedroom,
            “—”
            Nessiah isn’t there.

            “—”
            The sound of rain.
            Coldness enters the house through the open front door.

            My body moves.
            As if drawn by a thread.
            …My body moves, and I follow the thread into the gloaming night.

(interlude 8-1)

            “—”

            The magus stares blankly into the clouded-over sky.

            His body was hot.
            His body was hot and it hurt, and so he went to a place where it was not hot.

            The rain coats his body and plasters his clothes to his white skin, and he blinks away the water on his face.
            It is cold, but his body is still hot.

            “—I see, so it’s like that.”
            He speaks in a detached manner.

            Most likely, he is delirious.
            His senses are distorted, and even standing in the rain gives no real relief from the fever.

            “How troublesome.”
            But in his voice there is only dispassionate annoyance.

            He breathes out.
            His lips are blue with cold, and the white cloud of breath is torn to shreds by the unrelenting droplets of rain.

            “—”
            Even so.
            Frozen and wandering through the dead streets, oblivious—
            He doesn’t react in complaint or say that it hurts.
            From the beginning, this was a price he knew he would have to pay.

            There is none more suitable to be chosen as the scapegoat than one long since used to being pushed into that role.

 

            And so.
            Awake and dreaming, the magus—the imperfect “vessel” walks through the shadow-picture nightscape with uneven steps like a dance.

(8-1 interlude out.)

            “—”

            The street lamps pass by like jellyfish in the dark town.
            At the speed with which I run, everything is abstract and the world around me feels like a bad dream.

            I don’t have time to stop and think.
            So I don’t think.
            All I do is run.

            The connection between us, the bond of Master and Servant, is weak and muddled.
            But if I block out everything other than that connection, I’ll be able to follow it.
            I shut out my awareness of everything else and run through Fuyuki City.

            Because—

            If I just let Nessiah charge off on his own now, if something happens and I never see him again—

            …I know him.
            I know him better than anyone else.
            As presumptuous as it might sound, I think I can understand.

            …Most likely, he fully understands what’s happening to him.
            He’s wise enough for that.
            And most likely—he’s made the mistake of thinking that his understanding of his own condition means that he can weather it all by himself.
            He’s that kind of stupid.

            …No.
            That’s uncharitable, and it puts all the blame on Nessiah himself.
            It’s true that he’s really stupid sometimes.
            …But it is also true that this is just how Nessiah has gotten used to thinking, and that the way he’s lived for all these years has not been conducive to getting him to value himself.
            He would have broken for sure if he had cared about such things, and so he dissociated from himself in order to protect himself.
            …It’s just that even if that’s let him survive up until now, he can’t keep thinking that way.
            If he doesn’t take care of this life, then—

 

            My clothes and my hair are wet and heavy against my body, and cling at my limbs as if to try to make me slow down.
            The chilly air hurts my lungs when I breathe in, and it’s annoying.
            But I follow that “thread” through the blinding rain.

 

            Because.
            I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes I always have.
            Back then—Nessiah became fixed in his ways, and I failed to understand the full extent of the pain that he was in.
            We kept missing each other, even though we loved each other so much.

            And he fought so hard.
            He kept running and survived until this day so that we could have another chance.
            I’ll be damned if I’m going to let all of that slip through our fingers again—

            The rain continues to fall.
            Next to blind in the night, I arrive at the bridge.

            “—”

            And.
            A figure in white is there, looking blankly at the sky.

            “—Nessiah.”
            He turns to me when I say his name.
            His gaze seems to go right through me as if I’m not even actually standing here.
            “Nessiah, we’ve got to go back.”
            He doesn’t reply.
            He simply stands still and lets the rain pound his small body.

            “Nessiah.”
            I’m just about within arm’s reach of him when he staggers slightly, raising a hand to his forehead.
            When I reach out to put a hand on his shoulder and steady him, a shiver runs through his body, and I nearly pull my fingers away in surprise.
            His skin is quite hot to the touch, even more so than it was earlier today.

            “…Nessiah, we’ve got to get you out of the rain.
            “I know you don’t feel good, but there are better ways to cool off than by taking a walk in this kind of weather. You could get a cold on top of what’s already wrong with your body, and it’s not safe to be by yourself when you’re in this condition.”
            He doesn’t answer for a while, but then I catch his lips moving slightly.
            His voice is small, and with his hand in the way I can’t see the look in his eyes when he speaks.
            “I’ll—be all right.”

            Honestly, it pisses me off when he says that.
            He’s not all right, and that’s obvious to anybody with even a quarter of a brain.
            I don’t know whether he’s protecting his pride or whether he doesn’t want me worrying, whether he’s trying to convince himself or whether he’s just spacing out like an idiot.
            …The only sure thing is that we won’t be able to communicate if I get angry and yell at him. He’ll just tune me out the way that he did before.

            “Nessiah.
            “I can tell that you’re not okay, and it hurts just watching you push yourself and try to pretend that you are.
            “You’ve been through so much to make it here, but you’re not alone anymore.
            “Please.
            “Lean on me a little. We’re almost there, and you finally were able to summon me after waiting for so long, so if your legs are about to give up then let me help support you on the way to the finish line.
            “Just let me help you. It’s—it’s okay to rely on me a little.”

            “…Gulcasa.”
            He lets his hand fall as he says my name.
            He stares up at me with eyes as green as the sea.
            His eyes are cloudy with hopelessness.
            …They’re eyes that ask me why.
            They’re eyes that protest that he is worthless and should not be saved, that I should know this better than anyone.

            …He’s so stupid.
            Taking the long way, falling down and getting lost time and time again, being drawn into the cycle of pain that has always turned the world—
            Trying to take all the burdens on himself, as if suffering is the best kind of penance for everything he’s done wrong.
            Disregarding his physical needs as irrelevant, as if it’s become habit by now.
            It’s all so stupid.

            How—
            “Nessiah, I swear to you. It’s going to be okay.”

            How am I not supposed to love this person?

            Nessiah narrows his unfocused eyes.
            The droplets running down his face might be rain and might be tears; by now it is impossible for me to tell.
            So I tilt his face up and wipe his cheeks dry, even though I know that the rain will just fall all over again.
            “I’m going to protect you, no matter what.
            “So—cooperate with me, just a little bit.”

            His thin shoulders are shaking under my hands.
            He doesn’t make a sound, and all he does is close his eyes.

            “Nessiah.
            “I’ll say it as many times as you need to hear it.
            “I chose you, and I’ll keep choosing you with every breath and every beat of my heart until we’re both erased from the world.
            “So let me take care of you.”
            “…Gulcasa.”
            He opens his eyes and gazes at me as if not thinking anything.

            “—I love you.”
            And.
            For the first time since I was summoned into this age.
            I hold Nessiah carefully in both arms and lean down to cover his lips with mine.
            …It’s soft.
            His skin is so hot that even I feel like there’s a fire underneath, but his clothes are frozen with the rain and his breath is uneven.
            He clings onto me and doesn’t attempt to break away from the kiss.

            …When I make to move away.
            He just rests his forehead against my chest and keeps holding on to me.

            …For a moment.
            With time standing still, we stand under the icy blades of the rain, in a distorted world where the street lamps have turned to jellyfish and the Shinto skyline looks like blurry crystal.
            For just a little bit longer—we remain in a Fuyuki City where everything but the two of us is an intangible illusion—

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            The land that was silent in suffering began to whisper, a susurrus like the wind.
            Those days of fair blue skies and of deep red evenings were about to change, and everyone who could smell smoke on the air understood that.

            First.
            The young captain and his army had begun to take on greater targets very suddenly.
            What had once been a three-man vigilante band was now a splendid and well-trained force that was enough to frighten the corrupt into behaving just by appearing before them.
            They were able to conclusively secure peace on the mountain paths to the capital of the empire that had always been covered in bandits, were able to expose a major money-laundering scandal by a noble who had unlawfully raised the tax on salt.
            The young captain himself had even achieved a notable prize at an imperial tournament, and caught the emperor’s eye in doing so.
            …Even the young captain was willing to admit that by now he and his soldiers had begun to amass the kind of power that really meant something.
            Their name ran throughout the people of the country like hope.

            …And.
            The once-glorious resistance movement that had degenerated into a pack of wild dogs was also amassing firepower and great numbers.
            But no matter what they called themselves, the young captain and the people of the empire knew that this was no cause for rejoicing.
            He’d crossed blades with those people a few times.
            The rebels proclaimed that they acted in the best interests of the weak while oppressing the powerless with malice even more active than the government.
            They stole goods for themselves and exploited the people, and acted out of greed rather than compassion.
            It was bad enough that people like them paraded themselves about under the claim that they were the saviors of the weak, but to top it off the rebels who had always been decentralized and unskilled began to act cohesively, as if given direction by someone who knew what they were doing.
            …That was the truth.
            In one battle, the young captain saw it.
            The disillusioned knight he had once met had apparently been hired by the rebel leader to train their forces, and knowing of the conflict and only desiring to avenge his loss, the knight fought with the rebels.
            …That blindness to all but one’s own pain.
            Most likely, the rebel leader had shrewdly taken advantage of it and was simply pointing the knight’s madness in a direction that best suited his purposes.

            The air of the empire was permeated with ozone, and the scent of an impending thunderstorm was strong enough to be suffocating.
            Late summer like a pressure cooker.
            Everyone went about their daily lives in the oppressive atmosphere, understanding subconsciously that the world around them was a powder keg and the spark that would change it irrevocably would inevitably light very soon.

            It was an unremarkable gray day.
            The young captain and his forces had just returned from taking part in a military exhibition at the capital, a stressful battle where they had obtained the acknowledgement and approval of the top general of the nation, but at the potential cost of the emperor’s suspicion.
            …And.
            In that fretful afternoon, as the sun fell and stained the world madder red—
            The emperor’s right-hand knight appeared there.
            She demanded that the army’s landgrave employer and the entire army itself accompany her to the capital on orders of the emperor, and she would not explain the cause.
            Indeed, her demeanor proclaimed that this was nearly an arrest.
            And if they failed to comply with her orders, she threatened that they would all be executed for treason.

            Amidst the voices raised in frustration and distress, surely only the prophet heard it.
            —The sound of timber popping with the crackle of fire, and the clash of swords.

            When the argument was interrupted by a scout, the fuse was lit.
            Irrevocably.
            The western half of the town—the young captain’s birthplace, the slums that were the only refuge left for the poor and the powerless—was under attack by the rebels.

            The emperor’s messenger knight assured the private army that there was no need to worry.
            …That her soldiers were stationed on the bridge leading to the nobles’ quarter, and that no matter the power that the rebel army had, it would be insufficient to break through their guard.
            …That an order was an order, and no matter the circumstances they must depart.

            The young captain’s outrage, and that of his men, was explosive and uncontrollable.
            It couldn’t be helped.
            To be told so bluntly and as if it were a natural thing that only the rich were worth saving, that whatever self-centered plans the emperor had were more important than protecting the people right before their eyes.
            …No matter how they had fought, the ugly truth was that they still could not reach far enough to change the minds of those in the capital, those with real power in the empire.
            And when it came to this place—no amount of reason or threats could suppress his desire to protect it.
            The people who had put themselves at risk to shelter him and his two first friends during the time when they had nothing.
            What was his power for, then, if he could not protect them when they were in danger—?

            Luckily.
            The landgrave cut in just before battle could erupt between his army and the knights, and he forcefully explained things to the emperor’s messenger in such a way that she had to accept their putting higher priority on the people than on her mission.
            …But that didn’t do anything to diffuse the young captain’s rage.
            That anyone would dare to put a hand on the people so dear to him.
            He bore down on the soldiers hired to delay him from reaching the slums like a great divine wind, furious enough that his mere presence became oppressive.
            It was the state that people would refer to as cold wrath.
            His heart was on fire, the light of his eyes became like flame, the air around him seemed as though it would ignite with just one more spark, and yet he blazed so hotly that it manifested as a chill that terrified any who would dare to stand in his way.

            The night fell.
            The rebels had set the slums ablaze, and a great amount of smoke and flame rose from the westernmost quarter as the poor fled into the district of the rich.
            As the landgrave made preparations to accept and shelter the refugees, the young captain and his men stood on the bridge.
            There was not time to go in and assess the situation, but even so—
            Even as his men stood struck dumb by the senseless cruelty of the rebels, his body shook.
            His mind was empty but for one thought.

            —Punish them.

            …But, at that moment, when all the others amongst his cadre were paralyzed with grief and fear and shock, one pair of small hands held him back.
            Gentle and steady.
            The prophet, the only one in the entire army who had remained perfectly calm, spoke.
            He said that the rebels could not possibly have anything to gain from sacking the slums other than enraging their forces, and that reacting with anger would only play into their hands.
            That if they charged in and fought emotionally, then they would lose their cohesiveness and ability to fight as a team as the price for the extra strength it might grant them.
            …Hearing such rationality was like being dashed in the face with cold water, and at once the young captain was abashed at himself and grateful.
            If not for the prophet’s cautioning him, he surely would have forgotten even his goal of protecting the people in the face of his own rage.

            And so the young captain led his troops into the burning slums, pushed back the rebel soldiers, and shepherded the surviving poor back to safety.
            The rescued poor wept in gratitude, cheered on the hero who had risen from amongst them, and held their hope and pride to their hearts as they watched the battle from the safety of the nobles’ quarter.
            Too, the nobles and the rich allowed the refugees into their town with remarkably little fuss.

            The army returned to battle to find the knight waiting for them.
            …The enemy commander had waited for them to save the poor, avoiding any further persecution of the powerless as the fire had done its job.
            And the young captain acknowledged the vengeful knight’s display of honor in the crossing of their blades.
            But—the stage was not yet set for them to raise the curtains on their rematch.
            The rebel leader, in his cowardice, had taken the opportunity of their battle to mobilize his own personal troops—aiming for his true goal of the nobles’ quarter and the supplies he could steal therein.
            Realizing the twofold trap, the young captain directed his soldiers to ignore the knight and instead prioritize the real threat.
            When the knight protested that their battle was not yet over, the young captain simply said that now was not yet the time.

            —Without mincing words, it was a one-sided rout.
            The army came down upon the rebels with the force of a landslide, like the right arm of a god, swift and righteous in their fury.
            And like so many other enemies who had tried to stand down the young captain’s wrath that day, even the rebel leader himself turned tail and fled in terror.

            Afterward, the enemy knight said it best.
            That a man like that, who made his subordinates drunk on pretty words and promises of personal satisfaction and yet heartlessly manipulated them—without having enough courage to risk his own life—had no right to call himself a revolutionary.
            That the knight himself had been drawn in the same way, drunk on the prospect of avenging his own honor or at least making the young captain too feel loss, tempted into taking the easy way out.
            And in the depths of the night, in the burning city, he demanded that he be allowed to settle his accounts.
            He would fight alone, with no support; only a lance in his hand and the dregs of pride and hatred in his heart.
            Perhaps the young captain saw himself in that pride and that desperation, for he agreed.

            …The battle was quick, and merciless, and honorable.
            The knight who fell was able to acknowledge his loss, and acknowledging it asked to be allowed to rescue a relative from the clutches of the rebels before returning to die.
            …It was the kind of trust born between rivals that’s often told of in chivalric ballads, and knowing that he could believe in the word of his foe, the young captain allowed him to go.
            The rest of the night was spent suppressing the fire, keeping it from spreading, and finally putting it out.
            And in the morning, the girl that the knight had gone to rescue returned alone.
            …She said that her brother had meant to meet up with her sooner.
            She brought the army along with her out of worry.
            And when the young captain and his forces arrived at the rebels’ hideout, there they found the knight surrounded by enemies and about to be executed, blamed for the rebels’ defeat the previous night.
            From what they could see of the knight’s demeanor, he believed that he was going to be killed no matter how he struggled, and was simply attempting to pave his road to death with as many enemies’ corpses as possible for the sake of his own satisfaction.

            What to do in a situation like this.
            …To the young captain, it was obvious.
            He led his troops into the fray, broke through the encirclement, and extended the hand of salvation to his former foe.
            Of course the knight was too proud to passively accept being saved, especially from someone he had considered a rival.
            He bluffed and spurned the young captain’s offer, first claiming that he would only be shamed by pity and didn’t want a handout; when the topic of his sister was brought into the conversation, he claimed that all he wanted was for her to live a life unconnected to battle and that was why he had entrusted her to the army.
            The young captain refused to accept that answer, and the two of them shouted at each other for quite a while, as shameless as little boys.
            As if they were completely unconscious of their audience; like fools.
            But.
            —Perhaps that was precisely why he was able to communicate it.
            … “Because we are the same”—
            And understanding that, the knight joined him in crushing the remaining rebel forces and chasing their leader away.
            Finally.
            He was able to cross that small and impenetrable “distance” separating the two of them.

            Fear and panic; rage and pride; camaraderie, and love—
            The bountiful, uncontrollable emotions that the young captain experienced over the span of those two days were beginning to work a change in him.
            Those chaotic feelings, and the power he obtained when he was able to overcome and harness them, had allowed him to accomplish a feat so great that no amount of personal humility could dim its shine, even in his own eyes.

            In other words, it was far too late to stop the creaking motion of fate’s heavy cogwheels.
            The world around him and the world within him had begun irrevocably to change, and the simple days of hard work and companionship would no longer return—

 

            “—…”
            I wake to the vague feeling of having awakened halfway several times in the night, but not really being able to recall any of it.
            My body is heavy, and I feel overly warm.

            “Mm—hm.”
            Still, I can’t just go back to sleep.
            My internal rhythms tell me quietly and insistently when I close my eyes that I’ve had enough sleep to be getting on with, and that I should get up and be active unless I want to seriously hibernate.
            “That’s bad. I have a war to be fighting, so this is no time to hibernate.”
            But my body is disobedient when I push myself up.
            The joints in my arms feel rather stiff, and especially my shoulders don’t move easily.
            “…?”
            Underneath the covers, my hips seem to have lost a lot of their range of motion, and now that I’m more awake and concentrating it feels as though my legs have turned into dead stumps of wood from the knees down.
            I can’t even feel them.
            …But when I throw back the covers of the bed, my legs are definitely still there.
            From what I can tell by examining them magically, there’s nothing wrong with them.

            “…Either I slept oddly enough that they’ve gone to sleep, or…”
            Things are progressing a bit more quickly than I thought they would.
            It would be a combination of my own unpreparedness, the harshness of living homeless in this weather, and then the sudden acquisition of shelter, I suppose. A bit like the stories of starving people who suddenly receive as much food as they can eat, and stuff themselves to the point where their bodies can’t handle it and become extremely sick from the shock.

            Well, this just means that I’ll have to be careful moving until the feeling returns, since I might hurt myself otherwise.
            I take my time levering myself out of bed so that I can maintain my balance without twisting an ankle.

            “—”
            According to the clock, it’s about ten thirty in the morning.
            It’s odd.
            I definitely feel as though I’ve slept longer than that, since I didn’t go to sleep until fairly late last night…
            At any rate, Gulcasa doesn’t seem to be around here, so I should go downstairs and find him—we need to speak to Roswell about what to do from here as well.
            And it would be good to confirm if I’m free to use the bath at my own leisure.

            I am able to get myself across the room and out the door with no problems.
            Luckily this house is lavishly furnished with a number of tables and ornaments, so there are plenty of things to touch and place a bit of my weight on to take the strain off of my oversleeping ankles.
            But even though I support my weight firmly and carefully with both hands on either banister…

            “Kya—”

            …I manage to place a foot wrong or something along those lines, and before I know it I’m at the bottom of the stairs in an awkward sprawl with my head ringing.

            “Nessiah?!”
            Heavy footsteps shake the floor, and when I look up, Gulcasa is there.
            “—Ouch—”
            “Are you okay? Jeez, don’t think so hard when you’re walking down stairs, it’s easier to slip when you space out.”
            …Unless my ears are deceiving me, Gulcasa’s voice has some modicum of relief even as he scolds me. I’m not sure why that is.
            “…I wasn’t thinking particularly hard. My senses are just a bit dull from sleeping too much, and because this place is relaxing.”
            Gulcasa shakes his head and kneels down.
            “Here, I’ll help you up.”
            And he carefully supports my arms in order to raise me to my feet.

            “—Ahh—”
            But when I’m set onto my feet, even with Gulcasa supporting me—pain shoots up my whole left side through the leg that’s otherwise devoid of feeling, intense enough to make me gasp and to cause my vision to double.

            “…It’s a very light sprain.”
            Roswell says so afterward, his hands wrapped around my ankle, the palms glowing slightly.
            His demeanor is very much like a professional doctor’s as he assesses my injury sharply, and with Gulcasa hovering anxiously in the background I really do feel as though I’ve been transported into some doctor or healer’s examination room.
            “With this healing, you should be back to perfect condition in less than twenty-four hours, but until then it’s best that you stay off your feet as much as possible.
            “You said that you don’t have much feeling in your lower legs as it is, so it’s possible that you could make things even worse with another misstep if you don’t.
            “Whatever the case, you two are definitely staying indoors and resting all of today.”

            Worried faces.
            Roswell’s doctor-like practicality is coupled with definite concern, perfectly befitting his position as our ally and his personality as a healer.
            I can read Gulcasa’s closed expression well enough to be able to tell that he’s barely suppressing anxiety akin to panic.
            And even Saber, keeping her distance as usual, emits no hostility at all as she watches us with intensity.
            Damn it.
            This is what I was hoping to avoid, and it will only get worse if I actually try to explain things at this late date.
            Unfortunately, there’s some degree of clumsiness and apparent sickness that I won’t be able to help on the downswing of these kinds of events.
            Until my body stabilizes, I can expect all kinds of side effects such as pain and dizziness and fever, and even loss of sensation like today.
            …But the fact that we have obtained shelter and allies is a greater boon than anything else, as it buys more time for me to rest and become stable once again. It’s all extremely simple.
            I just hate being looked at with those worried faces.
            There’s no use panicking on my account, not over this degree of hindrance, but there’s no way for me to explain without causing an even greater uproar.

            “…All we can really do is just eat breakfast.
            “Nessiah, you need nutrition so that you can get your energy back.”
            Gulcasa looks at the floor and says so while tightly holding on to the hem of his shirt.
            His brow is creased and his knuckles are white, and he’s biting his lip.
            ……Damn it.
            I don’t like that he’s got that expression on his face at all, let alone on my account.
            Gulcasa’s days of having to worry about others to the point of heartsickness should be so far behind him, after all.

 

            The morning is gray.
            Roswell makes a show of energy in the kitchen and alternately has Gulcasa and his contentious princess help him make a large breakfast, but I can tell from my seat at the table that the atmosphere is lifeless.
            Perhaps it’s that sensation, but the breakfast itself seems to lack taste a bit.
            I try to eat what I can anyway so that Gulcasa won’t look at me so anxiously, but in the end it’s difficult to force food down when the overall air of the house is so listless.
            I know I should eat, but my hunger itself is being sapped away.

            “…At any rate.
            “I was wondering if I could use the bath for a bit. Aside from just getting clean, being able to sit in warm water would be good for my body.”
            Roswell nods.
            “Try to keep your ankle raised, and have Gulcasa help you with picking things up.
            “Also, just make sure to rest easy until you’re feeling more fit. I’ve already said this, but with nine Servants summoned, only seven need to be defeated in order to complete the Holy Grail.
            “With Saber and Berserker on our side, there is no need for us to compete at all, and unless we specifically need the power of both Servants to defeat a foe, it should be all right for you two to stay in reserve and recuperate instead of actively participating.
            “…We’ll be heading out again tonight to gather information, as we decided last night. But I believe that it would be best for the two of us to go alone, and for you two to keep resting.
            “Pushing you in your condition would be far too counterproductive.”

            Roswell sighs and leans back in his chair with an air of finality.
            The only sound is the noise of Yggdra quietly doing the dishes.
            …She’s barely spoken since arguing with Gulcasa over food. I suppose that makes some things a lot easier to deal with, but it does feel awkward.
            Gulcasa doesn’t venture anything either, and I certainly can’t argue.
            Being told to stay put is a bit frustrating, but I highly doubt I’ll be of much use the way that I am, and anyway with Team Saber investigating the city we’ll still be able to retrieve information at the usual rate.
            So, it would be best to stay here in hopes that it will allow me to recover more quickly.

            “—We should hold a strategy conference when you get back, at least. I want to learn anything that you find out.”
            When I say so, Roswell lets out a breath as if relieved by my acquiescence.
            “All right.
            “Yggdra and I will be heading out before dinner, a little earlier than usual. But we should definitely be back before midnight even if we run into an unexpected combat situation.
            “You can use anything in the house freely until then, as long as you don’t make a big mess and then don’t clean it up.”

            “I’ll partake of the bath with thanks, then.”

            The conversation ends like that.
            Because I shouldn’t walk on my own according to our resident doctor, Gulcasa carefully raises me up into his arms in order to carry me up to the bathroom.

            It’s awkward.
            Gulcasa sets me down on a stool and digs out the different things that he deems I might need to bathe, like washcloths and soap.
            “…”
            And it doesn’t take me very long to discover the main problem with this scenario.
            “—Gulcasa.”
            He stops when I call his name, looking at me blankly.
            “What is it? You’ve got a really weird expression.”
            …I don’t think I’m making that strange of a face.
            This is normal for people who feel distaste at having to make a request.

            “I require assistance.
            “—You heard Roswell, I shouldn’t be on my feet.
            “And… without standing, these clothes are somewhat difficult to remove.”
            “Oh.”
            Gulcasa blinks, then breathes out and smiles almost apologetically.
            “Excuse me, then.”

            His footsteps ring on the floor, echoing with his oddly formal words as he comes to kneel behind me.
            Carefully.
            I untie the front of the dress, and Gulcasa’s hands run over my shoulders to push the straps down.
            His hands are warm, gentle, and a bit rough because of the thick callusing along his palms.
            He supports my weight and lifts me slightly in order for me to push the clothes I’m wearing down past my hips, and then sets me down to extricate my legs from the soft fabric.
            His hair, soft from recent washings, brushes lightly against my naked skin as he works.
            And his hands continue to touch against my body in various places.
            …It’s exhausting.
            It’s the gentle touch of the person most important to me in the world, but it underscores my own helplessness.
            And above and beyond all of that, because of my still uncertain physical condition, his touch is vaguely irritating against my skin.
            Ordinarily being in a position like this—that is to say, being undressed should be arousing.
            But because of the situation, it just makes me irritated and anxious, and having those feelings under these circumstances is tiresome.

            “…I can at least wash my own body, though.”
            Perhaps because of that, I can’t keep the annoyance out of my voice when Gulcasa turns on the mobile showerhead and begins to run warm water along my bare skin.
            Still.
            “All right.
            “Then, I’ll wash your hair and your back and leave the rest to you.”
            When Gulcasa responds, his voice is warm and extremely gentle.
            …I wonder what he’s thinking.
            If this is just his usual patience, or whether seeing my ruined back revives his feelings of sympathy so that he’s more tolerant than usual.
            Or if he understands my reasoning and feels like in my place he would act the same.
            Whatever the case.
            …I clumsily run a soap-covered washcloth over my body and rinse away the dirt and sweat of the past few days while Gulcasa’s fingertips dance through my hair and at the nape of my neck.
            As expected of someone who’s sensitive about such things himself, he takes care not to yank on my short hair while working shampoo into it, and he warns me to close my eyes when he appropriates the showerhead to rinse it out.
            He does not flinch from the ugly scars that cover me from just beneath my shoulders to my waist, but still touches them with extreme tenderness as he washes them.
            …And that.
            His methodical consideration of my disabled and mutilated body is an irritation to me.
            Because he’s caring for me as he would for anyone.
            …Or maybe it’s just that I’m contrary and I don’t like being cared for.
            The position of helplessness and Gulcasa’s kind silence.
            I swallow the sharp feelings of frustration and anger and hold them in a ball of prickles like a fat sea urchin in the pit of my stomach.
            Painful and constant.
            That I feel like this towards someone that I love is also an annoyance.

            “—Hah.”
            I let out my breath in a sigh as Gulcasa fills the bathtub.
            Being able to sit in silence and relaxation should undo the knots inside me.

            “…All right.
            “I’ll help you get settled, and you’re already clean, so you can stay in as much as you like.
            “—I’ll tidy up, too. You’re the only one using the bath, so there’s nothing to really worry about here.”

            Gulcasa speaks casually as he lifts my body with obvious care and sets me into the water.
            The tub is wide and deep, allowing me to stretch out and stay submerged up to my shoulders while putting my injured ankle up on the step built into the tub’s side.

            The water is warm.
            I close my eyes for a moment and listen as Gulcasa makes needless amounts of noise trying to figure out where the bathing tools go.
            If there is time to relax, then I should

 

 

                        “—hear me?”

            “—”
            It makes me gasp in shock.
            Instantaneously.
            I was sitting still and cradling my dissatisfaction, and Gulcasa was on the other side of the room making a useless din.
            …But instantaneously, he is here at the side of the tub, holding my face in his hands as he yells in a panicked voice.
            “—Eh?”
            “Nessiah.
            “Can you understand me?”
            “…Eh, eh—?”
            My mind can’t keep up, but—
            There is no color in Gulcasa’s face.

            “Nessiah, I’m asking if you can h— — — —e?”
            Static bursts next to my ear for a moment.
            I can see Gulcasa’s lips moving, but I can’t hear anything.

            “—”
            I raise a hand and touch my forehead.
            My feelings of disorientation are all to do with the oddness of the situation, not physical.
            “Nessiah.”
            Gulcasa asks insistently once again.

            “—I can hear you.
            “I can hear you, so calm down.”

            With that.
            Gulcasa releases an immense sigh and lets go of me, collapsing onto his backside on the floor.
            “That’s a fine time to space out.”
            He complains.

            “…No.”
            I shake my head in a vain attempt to clear it.
            There’s a window, high up in the wall, just a few rectangular panes of glass.
            …And the light from that window is definitely in a different place than it was just a moment ago, because there is a faint patch of brightness in the direction I’m looking where there was none before.
            …Stop thinking and just confirm it.
            Otherwise I might panic, which will only agitate Gulcasa more.

            “—Gulcasa, how long have I been sitting here?”
            “Huh?
            “Something like an hour or an hour and a half.
            “Jeez, you’re so bad about getting randomly lost in thought. I thought you’d either fallen asleep or you were relapsing, but your eyes were wide open and you actually replied.”
            “—”
            I lost—that much time.
            That’s the only explanation.
            The time passed, but for whatever reason it was not recorded in my memory.

            “Nessiah?!”
            I realize that my hands are vaguely trembling.
            …I realize that I am breathing too hard and too quickly.
            “Nessiah, here—”
            Gulcasa immediately plunges his clothed arms into the water to lift me out of it, and sets me down and flings a towel around my shoulders.

            “Damn it, I thought you were doing better, but if you’re getting sick because of running out like an idiot yesterday—”
            The words catch at my mind.
            “Gulcasa, what are you talking about?”
            “I’m talking about you deciding to take a little stroll in the rain last night—don’t tell me you were feverish enough that you don’t remember it at all?”
            …I don’t.
            Last night, I properly went to bed after our strategy meeting, and even if I feel as though I woke up a few times momentarily, I certainly should remember a sharp physical shock like being rained on.
            I don’t like this.

            “…Gulcasa.
            “This is just to confirm, but will you recount the events of the past two days to me?”
            For a moment, my Servant simply looks at me with baffled eyes.
            I understand. I’d be confused if I were asked something like this out of the blue, as well.
            But I want to know if my bad feeling is correct before I actually start talking about it and make Gulcasa’s habitual worrying go into overdrive.

            “—Well, two days ago we didn’t do very much.
            “You woke up and I introduced this situation to you, you got mad, I made dinner here and we decided to partner up with Roswell at night.
            “Yesterday you were sick again, and so not much happened then either except your wandering outside in a daze. I think aside from that you were mostly either asleep or delirious.”
            All I can do is sigh.
            “—It figures as much.
            “Gulcasa.
            “All of the events of yesterday that you’ve mentioned just now don’t exist for me.”

            “—What are you talking about?”
            He continues to stare at me, perplexed.

            “It’s simple.
            “The last thing I can remember before I woke up this morning was speaking to you before I went to sleep—what you describe as being two nights ago.
            “You have no reason to lie to me, and so the conclusion I’m forced to draw is that I lost an entire day’s worth of time. Yesterday surely happened, but I cannot remember it whatsoever.
            “And it happened again just now.
            “Since getting into the water, I lost a full hour or so.
            “It’s not the same as simply spacing out and losing track of time, there’s a gap in my memories so that one second you were banging around the cabinets and the next you were shaking me in a panic.”

            Gulcasa is pale.
            The look on his face is a mix of concern and horror as he stares at me silently.
            “…This is what Roswell said would happen, I guess.
            “When you were delirious yesterday, he said that—that as long as your body had too much prana in it, if things got too out of control then you’d start to lose your human functionality, that your senses would shut down or something like that.”
            “—I see.
            “So, rather than just keep me in an impossible state of fever all the time, my body has decided selfishly on its own to start shutting itself off for self-preservation.
            “And that’s why my sense of touch and my memory are flawed.”

            Gulcasa doesn’t reply.
            We just face each other in silence, him kneeling on the floor, me naked and dripping and shielded only by a towel.

            “…It’s turned into a race as to whether I can adapt and stabilize, or whether things will progress to the point that my body won’t be able to keep up… huh.”
            Well, I do think that given enough time I would get used to it and be able to cope well enough to go about my business as usual.
            …It’s just that I may not have the convenience of as much time as I need.
            “And, if we’re sure that things will get worse every time a Servant is defeated…
            “Honestly, how troublesome.
            “I could easily adapt and keep abreast of the fluctuations in my condition if this weren’t a two-week-long war.
            “Even if I’m not physically suited for such things, I know that I have a sturdy enough constitution to be able to bear this.
            “But two weeks may simply be too close to be sure.”

            “—”
            Gulcasa’s eyes narrow slightly.
            The only sound is the faint patter of water against the floor.
            “…I don’t understand complicated things.
            “All I know is that you can’t keep pushing yourself like this.
            “—It’s too dangerous, Nessiah.”

            “I’m not pushing myself.
            “At least, I’m not doing so by choice. This is a position I was thrust into without having any say in the matter.
            “As long as it’s a matter of simply bearing it as it runs its course—then especially since we’ve been granted shelter, that shouldn’t be a problem. I’m experienced at that kind of thing, you see.”
            “—Still.
            “I can’t tell you what to do when I don’t know what’s going on yet, but this much is within my power.
            “I’m getting you back upstairs; you should lie down and rest. There’s your twisted ankle too and all, so at least while Roswell and the princess are off scouting around, you ought to stay in bed.”

            There’s not much that I can do to argue.
            Well, in the first place, Gulcasa is probably correct.
            At a time like this when my body still cannot decide how to cope with the influx of prana and the extreme fullness of my crowded flesh, I must rest rather than aggravate my condition further.
            …All I can do is doze, and wait for my body to stop panicking all on its own—

(interlude 9-1)

            The town is gray.
            It’s only eight o’clock, and the sun is still going down.
            Rather than painting the world madder red, the sunset has progressed to the point where everything is a dull metallic blue.

            “It’s a little bit depressing.”
            The magus says so idly as he walks with his Servant.
            “—Not having any color in the sky always makes me feel a bit listless.”

            They walk throughout the gray town together.
            …This is an early patrol.
            Even though this is a point in time when people should be running about, in Miyama it is still extremely quiet.
            Perhaps it’s because of the recent report of the death of Assassin’s Master.
            This land remembers the scars of the last war five years ago, with the high death toll.
            Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that the people of Miyama have retreated into their homes at the appearance of another inexplicable and cruel death.

            “—The fire fifteen years ago at the end of the fourth war, the masses of civilian casualties in the fifth, and now this violent death.
            “It’s like the ritual itself is cursed.”
            “Are you regretting it?”
            From beside him, Saber asks quietly.
            “There’s nothing for me to regret.
            “I’ve already gone and been chosen, and I have to uphold the honor of the Branthèse family—no, the entire Valois clan, win or lose.
            “There was everything with Rosary too, after all.”

            The world of magi is like that.
            But even so, Saber’s Master hesitates.

            “It’s just that everything about this ritual is strange once you think about it.
            “We don’t know anything about the ritual aside from the information recorded by the Magic Association. We don’t know why the gaps between the cycles have sped up, and we don’t know why the ritual itself is continuing on like this even now that none of the three founding families is participating.
            “I don’t have enough knowledge of the history to proclaim it unusual or suspicious.
            “But even though I’m just a chess piece playing my part in the grand scheme of things—I can’t help but feel uneasy.”

            A grand ritual like this shouldn’t just continue to occur all by itself like a clock that keeps going once it’s started.
            Clocks by themselves need winding.
            This war has all the necessary structure aside from the absence of Einzbern, Tohsaka, and Makiri, even possessing a supervisor dispatched by the Magic Association.

            Perhaps it’s because their ally, the Master of Berserker, speaks of that supervisor with such enmity and fear.
            …Perhaps it’s because of the look on that magus’ face when they spoke two nights ago that he feels this oppressive anxiety.

            “—I hope I’m overthinking things.
            “I have a pessimistic personality to begin with, so I hope it’s just that.”

            Saber listens and does not reply, and the two of them continue to walk through the dead streets of the gray town.

 

            They walk, and after turning a corner into a niche tucked out of sight, Saber’s Master feels the distinct sense of walking through a wet membrane.
            “—”
            The mark on his hand throbs.
            He does not speak, but communicates to Saber with a glance.
            She nods.
            Her form changes softly, and she tightly grips her holy sword, the great Noble Phantasm of her family.

            And.
            In the grassy garden overgrown with thick clover.
            In the place touched by the first glow of moonlight as the sun goes down, stands a pair of young girls and a gallant woman in armor.

            The woman holds her Noble Phantasm in her hands.
            It is a heavy spear.
            …She is not Lancer, whom Saber’s group and Berserker’s have both met and confirmed as a male Servant.
            “—Rider.”
            And so, she fits the description well enough that he can tell which Servant she is.
            With two young magi at her back, she could hardly be anything else.

            “—”
            “Master, stand back.”
            Saber lifts her sword.
            “You can sense it too, I’m sure.
            “—Alone, she isn’t any match for me.”

            “I’d like for you to refrain from making hasty judgments.”
            Rider replies to her foe in a mild tone of voice befitting a knight.
            “You do a dishonor to both of our status as Servants.”

            Saber simply narrows her eyes.
            “—It’s brave of you to face me down, but I know that everyone standing here can tell the difference in our strength.”
            She isn’t lying, either.
            It is the entirely ordinary distance between a “ruler” and a “knight”.

            Rider closes her eyes.
            The knight who surely understands that she has lost her advantage now that she has been separated from her partner does not react to Saber’s boldness.
            Her legend is one legend out of a hundred.
            Even without the greater popularity of Saber’s tale in this time period, she would be at a disadvantage because of her relative anonymity.
            But Rider’s actions don’t seem to curse her natural disadvantage.
            She simply closes her eyes and lets Saber’s remark roll off her armor as if to suggest that Saber’s having said so is arrogance unbefitting of a Heroic Spirit.

            “Nevertheless.
            “—I am Primea’s Servant.
            “My lady and her sister both stand at my back, and as a knight I will show you how I crush that possibility.
            “Lady Knight Silvanoier gave her life so that we might still win this war, and I will not shame that sacrifice.”

            In contrast to the calm words of the knight, the two girls simply stare at Roswell Branthèse with harsh eyes.
            Primea, the girl who always danced and taunted like a little child, is quiet.
            And—there is something odd about the way that Nana, she who had always been timid, stands.
            Like the knight, she has placed herself between her sister and the enemy.
            And when the clouds part and let the starlight and moonlight through, her auburn hair becomes tipped with gold.

            Light shines down.
            Rider lifts her heavy spiraled lance to the heavens, and a great wind erupts around her.
            It is too intense, and Roswell must shield his face for a moment to protect his eyes from being pierced by debris.
            When he is again able to look, Rider sits astride a tall armored charger, a great horse with proud bearing.

            …He understands that this isn’t good.
            Although Saber’s sword itself is large, Rider is taller and has much greater range.
            Now mounted, she will have still greater range and be harder to hit.

            But Saber’s back tells him that he mustn’t worry about such things.

            “I will decide this in a single strike.
            “—Stand back, Master.”

            And in the next moment, the two clash.
            At the border of the road and the garden, leaves of clover fly through the air like cherry blossom petals.
            Like a tournament joust, Rider on her horse clatters into the street, wheeling around for another blow.
            Saber simply pivots on one foot and readies her sword once more.

            “—”
            Seeing them clash like that gives strength to Roswell’s belief.
            Truly, Saber is stronger than their opponent.
            Neither of them has particularly been damaged.
            …Perhaps that’s why he suddenly has certainty.
            Rider, who has superior reach and locomotion, was not able to land a decisive blow on Saber even so.
            When they reveal their Noble Phantasms and strike at each other, surely Saber’s light will shine the brighter, and lead her to victory.

            “—Kuh.”
            Rider’s Master, the pink-haired girl dressed in cute frills, bites her lip as if she understands this as well.
            Faced with the gravity of the situation, Rider’s Master shows a rare serious face.

            “Primea.
            “It’s fine.”
            “—Nana-chan.”

            Even as Rider’s Master looks at her sister dumbfoundedly, Roswell can only do the same.

            “If we can’t win like that, there’s always the other way.
            “—I’ll thank you for saving me from that monster of a Servant by cutting this guy’s guts out, okay—?”

            Relaxed and casual.
            The former Master steps into the moonlight, and when she opens her eyes they burn red.
            It’s not a trick of the light at all.
            Her hair has been turned blinding gold by the light of the moon, and the girl named Nana raises her arm.
            …Roswell can see the line of her Magic Circuit light up through her skin.
            Blood erupts out of the corners.
            Compared to his Magic Circuits, hers is of poor quality, and her body is truly unfit for magical study just as Nessiah proclaimed.
            But.

            “Trace, on—”
            She proclaims an unusual spell, and something like a simulacrum of Lancer’s lance appears in her hand.
            A jagged spear—no, a halberd.
            Detached fragments of blue and white, of some kind of substance that looks flat and hurts Roswell’s eyes.
            It’s not at all on the level of a Noble Phantasm.
            But it is a powerful weapon nonetheless, and not the kind of thing that a “human” should ever wield.

            …He has an ominous premonition.
            As with the time that Nessiah easily overcame his attacks with impossible feats of magecraft.
            This girl is a monster.
            This girl is a monster beyond him, especially as his means of melee combat are very limited.
            The house of Valois is not like the Tohsaka or the Edelfelt.
            It is much more like the Einzbern in that Valois magi, no matter their family, pour their all into the magical arts that suit them rather than seeking to support them with modern battle techniques.
            If every long-standing house of magi is mad to the point of foolishness, then that is the fatal flaw of Valois’ descendants.
            In one-on-one close combat, Roswell is next to helpless, and Saber is his only means of defending his body physically.

            So he can’t let her get close.
            He would prefer not to stain his hands.
            …But allowing that girl to get close to him would mean his own death.

            The girl—the former Master with a peculiar madness in her eyes leans forward and begins to run towards him with her weapon in her hands.

            “—”
            Roswell leaps backwards.
            He leaps backwards, calls prana into his hands, and releases it in sharp bursts with crawling shadows that slip out of the earth to catch at her feet.

            But the girl—Nana simply slows her pace slightly and slashes at his released spells, deflecting them with her blade.
            …He can tell from that action.
            This thing he’s facing isn’t really a magus.
            It’s something far different.

            If Nessiah is close to a magician or a beast, then she is a magic user or a beast.
            The Magic Circuits that lit up in her body when she projected the axe in her hands were poor quality and very few in number, far too few to support a true magus.
            …So she is something different, something more suited for combat.
            She has limited ability to use magecraft, but it appears as though attacking him like she is now is what her true purpose is.

            “Roswell—”
            Saber calls out to him in a concerned voice.
            “It’s all right.
            “—Just focus on Rider, you can’t get distracted—”

 

            Saber is the only weapon available to him.
            And she is occupied with having to fend off the most dangerous opponent.
            She is only a single sword, and cannot protect him while fighting her own battle.
            So Roswell’s battle is simple.
            He will have difficulty winning if he cannot do so from a distance, and must therefore endure.

            As holy weapons clash further down the road, Roswell retreats to the other side of the sidewalk across the street.
            This is a dead sector of Fuyuki.
            …Therefore, even if they make a great deal of noise, it’s not like anyone will come.

            “—”
            He doesn’t have many catalysts on him, but he came prepared to use them all up to keep himself alive.
            So, Roswell ignites and sets loose three large-scale fire spells in succession.

            She slows.
            Nana, the great clump of murderous intent that calls itself a former Master, stops and staggers backward with the effort of blocking all the fire.
            Her weapon is aligned with water and ice, and so maintaining it in the face of an opposing element is likely very difficult.
            But she must counter the fire if she does not wish for her body to be burnt.

            “Ha—ah.”
            She staggers.
            It’s not as though she has tripped.
            When she launched herself back towards him, her left knee buckled and she had to support herself with her weapon or fall.
            Her clothing is dark, but Roswell can still see it in the moonlight where the pale blue light turns the leg of her pants gray.
            …There’s a seeping black stain at her knee as though she is a robot with an oil leak.

            “Stop getting in my way—”
            Her breathing is hot and rowdy as she lunges at him.
            It reminds Roswell of his limited experiences in transferring prana, and the perverse breathing of the girl before him as though her pain and his desperation are giving her pleasure makes him wary.

            But even though her movements are limp and erratic, she continues to charge at him in straight lines, and swings her weapon from side to side rather than thrusting it.
            It causes her attacks to be easy to avoid.

            …Yes.
            The odd changes in this girl’s demeanor are something to worry about after the fact.
            There are no other Masters present, and so Roswell must simply evade her to his heart’s content until Saber is finished.

            “You—!!”

            Narrowly.
            He avoids her wild strike and moves backward, but she continues to raise her weapon and chase after him.

 

            And.

            “Gran—”

            …Truly, it is decided in an instant.

            “—Centurio—!!”

 

            “Ahh—”
            Rider disappears without a sound.
            The faint noise comes from the Master still standing in the garden.
            The girl called Primea falls with a thud, her consciousness dissipating with the tension.

            “Eh, Primea—”
            Nana halts.
            She runs as if to turn to her sister’s aid.

            “—”
            And Roswell raises his right hand.
            Just when the girl reaches the threshold of the garden, he fires one Gandr shot off his extended index finger.

            “Hyau—”
            She makes a sudden, surprised noise like a squeal, and she drops.

            Further down the street, Saber is already lowering her sword.
            The battle is complete.

            “—”
            Roswell lets out his breath and looks into the garden.
            On the soft cushion of clover, the sleeping bodies of two girls lie.
            Their Command Spells have disappeared.
            With those and their Servants gone, they have no means to fight any longer other than their own bodies.

            “—If they come after us again—well, I suppose that we shall deal with that when the time comes.
            “Until then, they can go ahead and dream.”
            His soliloquy is swallowed by the night.
            It is nine o’clock and the sun has set.
            In the empty streets, the master of Saber turns to his Servant.
            “—Let’s go home. If we run into another combat situation it will only tire you, and our allies are waiting for us—”

            She nods.
            The sword vanishes.
            The two turn and head back the way they came in silence.

(9-1 interlude out.)

            “Wait here.”
            At the sound of the door, Gulcasa leaves my side.

            “…Hah.”
            I breathe out in a sigh and close my eyes.
            …Really.
            He’s had me lying down since that time, and I’ve had little to do but doze off, but I’ve neither been able to sleep nor had any other lapses in consciousness.
            On the other hand, because I have nothing else to concentrate on, I’ve been able to sense the change.
            My already overly heavy body soaks up the spilled energy slowly and inevitably as I focus on my breathing.
            No matter how much I think that I can’t bear anymore, my body simply takes it in because it can, and I feel ill and dirty.
            My bones hurt as the prana worms its way through my flesh in search of a place to fit.
            But as it is, my chest and my stomach and the miniscule gaps between my organs are already completely filled.
            So the prana with nowhere to go tries to pack itself further into the container and recklessly violates my nerves.
            I lie still and breathe as sharp needles of pain investigate the hollows of my bones and the tiny spaces between the tendons in my joints.
            The energy nestles together and knits itself closely before parting like cells splitting, and I’m so overly aware of it that my head hurts.
            …More and more prana packs itself into my heart, and the glyphs under my skin feel as though they’re constricting my body like snakes.
            I know better, but the fear that my heart will simply burst from being unable to take the strain is difficult to bear.
            “—”

            “…Nessiah?”
            “—I already know. They’ve defeated another Servant.”

            Gulcasa doesn’t say anything.
            He doesn’t attempt to ask me how I know this.

            “…Is it hard on you?”
            I breathe out.
            “—A bit.
            “It’s not as bad as the last time, probably because I’ve been relaxing all day and was able to sense it coming. When things don’t come as a shock they’re much easier to prepare for, after all.”
            “Nessiah.”
            “…It’s painful, but I’ll be all right for a while.
            “Help me get downstairs. I suppose that for now all I can do is eat and then continue to rest; I do need to keep my strength up.”

            “…Yeah.”
            It’s dark, so I can’t see Gulcasa’s expression very well as he lifts me up.
            And.
            I have a feeling that his profile will be gloomy if I look up, so I just close my eyes as we emerge into the corridor, illuminated by the downstairs lights.

            “—”
            “—”
            Which leads us to the current situation.

            “This is my chance to show you up for last time, so make sure that you clear your plate.”
            Yggdra announces this and lays out a series of what appear to be fruit-based dishes on the table with a superior-looking smile.
            I don’t have any comments to make, but Roswell gives her a gentle and supportive expression.
            “—The slices of kiwi are done very evenly. You’ve certainly improved.”
            Yggdra’s superiority transcends a level, and she folds her arms smugly.
            Gulcasa just looks at her blandly.
            “Making it look good on the outside is certainly one thing.
            “But no matter how pretty a dish is, it’s never going to be any good unless you’re able to coordinate the actual contents with care.
            “—So I’m withholding judgment until I’m done eating.
            “You don’t look like you’d know the secret ingredient that will make every dish complete, anyway.”
            And just like that, she’s back to sulking.

            …The food is, I can say with certainty, nowhere near as good as anything Gulcasa would cook.
            But then, that’s normal for humans.
            It’s not terrible either, which I suppose is equally relevant.
            There’s no meat in tonight’s dinner, but there’s peanut butter included in at least one of the dishes from its taste, and so there’s still protein.
            It’s nothing I’ve ever eaten before, but that may work in the princess’ favor as I can’t compare it to Gulcasa’s skill level and automatically hate her handiwork.

            …Unfortunately.
            I don’t reach the salad in time to provide a warning.

            As it is, Gulcasa goes pale in the middle of eating and covers his mouth with a hand.
            He closes his eyes and his brow is creased almost as if he’s in pain.
            It takes him a lot of visible effort, but he manages to swallow whatever it is he took a bite of, and then carefully sets his utensils down.

            “W-what?”
            From the other end of the table, Yggdra glowers at him as if in apprehension.

            “This salad.”
            Gulcasa says only that before going for a drink of water.
            …I bring my own bowl closer to me for inspection and carefully move the leaves of lettuce aside, and as I suspected—there are slices of fruit as red as fresh blood hidden deep within.
            “What about it?”
            Yggdra is already bristling, and as neither Roswell nor I venture any comments, there is a tense silence until Gulcasa sets his empty glass back on the table.

            “—It’s crap. I’m going to throw up if I eat any more of that. I was about to throw up just now, but that would have been an insult to the rest of the food and everyone at the table besides, so I restrained myself. Be grateful.
            “It’s a shame, because I was just about to change my opinion of you from ‘idiot noble with no idea what she’s doing’ to ‘not completely hopeless’. Yep, it was idiotic of me to even expect anything from your little display of hubris after all.”
            “Wha—”
            At Gulcasa’s merciless words, Yggdra lets her mouth flap open like a fish.
            She stares at him in astonishment, apparently at a loss to come up with any retort to what any normal person would have extreme difficulty saying.
            “I might have understood you not liking some of the side dishes, but how can you say that about the salad?!
            “That’s the centerpiece of the dinner! I was going to put strawberries in the other dishes as well, but I decided to pour them all into the salad just to impress you!
            “You must be lying. I’ll have you take those words back, right now, with interest!”

            “—Ah.
            “I get it, so you’re purposely trying to piss me off then.”
            It appears as though a shadow has been cast over the upper half of Gulcasa’s face, and a vein seems to be standing out in his cheek.
            Thunder crashes above the table as the two’s intent to kill rages back and forth.

            “You’re both energetic today, as well.”
            When I remark on it, the two of them both jump in their seats as if they forgot for the second time around that they’re not alone in the room.

            “—Likes and dislikes aren’t something that people can help.
            “Princess.
            “It was accidental this time, but from now on don’t cook things that people can’t eat. They’ll take it as a deliberate insult and cause a big scene.
            “And Gulcasa, this is a case of bad affinity, so just give the salad to someone else and forgive her for this time. It’s exhausting just watching the pair of you being ridiculous like this.”

            “Hmph.”
            Gulcasa pushes his bowl into the center of the table as if saying that anyone can have it, then gets up and goes over to the refrigerator.
            “What are you looking for?”
            Roswell watches after him curiously.
            “—You don’t have ginger anywhere, do you?
            “If I can’t have something as a palate cleanser I’m going to have that awful taste in the back of my throat all night, I can just tell.”

            “Mu—”
            Yggdra sulks with her cheeks puffed out.

            But at least neither of them argues about the food any more.

            “Thank you for the food.”
            In the end, Roswell is the only one who says it, because Gulcasa is still angry about the strawberries and I have to watch him in order to keep him from getting snippy again.
            And, as can be expected, Yggdra is displeased.
            “—I’ll make you acknowledge me.
            “This is a matter of pride now, so I will definitely make you acknowledge me next time.”
            She burns with the fires of stubbornness and glowers across the table.
            “Learn to cook meat. Or better yet, just learn to grill.
            “Then practice at that for ten or twenty years every day without stopping, and maybe then you’ll be able to make something that I can acknowledge as being worth letting Nessiah eat.”
            “But he ate it without complaints.”
            “—Please stop trying to drag me into this.”
            And they both sulk again.

            “…Nessiah, your face is red.
            “Is your fever getting worse again? Say something if you’d like to lie down.”
            Roswell speaks to me gently and politely, as if making a deliberate attempt to defuse the situation by attempting to remind everyone of our actual purposes.
            …If I thank him aloud, it will probably ruin things, but I try to communicate the same thing with a glance anyhow.
            “…It’s not particularly getting worse, but it is going down.
            “If it’s not too much trouble, I would prefer to go back to my room and postpone the strategy meeting and recap until tomorrow.”

            “Then, I’ll take you.
            “Say something if you’re in pain.”
            Gulcasa volunteers himself immediately.

            …I don’t know if “in pain” is the right thing to call what I’m feeling.
            Discomfort at a higher level than a natural fever, yes.
            But the sensations that I’m experiencing aren’t as intense as before, and I know that it could get much worse if I’m not careful.
            “I’m all right.
            “Staying in a relaxed state and meditating to take my mind off it is keeping things from being as bad as they were before, at any rate.”

            “…I see.
            “Well, I’ll examine you again tomorrow morning before we discuss business.
            “And both of you, call for me if you need help sooner than that.”
            Roswell nods, then turns to Yggdra.
            “Let’s take care of the dishes.”

            Gulcasa picks me up then, and I close my eyes to rest my head on his shoulder.
            …Waiting endlessly for respite is boring and irritating.
            But for now, that is all I can do—

(interlude 9-2)

            “—Hah, ah—”
            And.
            Several miles from the battlefield they have deserted, his legs lose their ability to move so quickly at last.

            “—Ein, come on.”
            As expected of her.
            Rose isn’t even winded.
            She stares with eyes that pierce the night.

            “I can’t—just let me rest for a little bit… okay?”
            He gasps.
            They have been running for nearly thirty minutes.
            It is a wonder that he has not collapsed sooner.
            …But, there is at least adrenaline to spur him on.
            The Command Spell on his arm still throbs continually, and his heart beats heavily at the thought he might falter and cause a problem in the plan.

            “…Well, okay.”
            She groans and massages her forehead.
            “Just a minute, though.
            “—Lancer’s buying us time, but this plan’s not going to work if we can’t circle back around in time to call him.
            “And we sure as hell don’t want to just run straight back. If she can trace us, we’re in trouble.”

            He knows.
            …He knows even without her telling him.
            No, he knows even better than she.

            That thing is a guardian angel.
            That Servant, whose identity he wasn’t able to glean just from the short amount of battle it took him to assess the situation as hopeless, has a defensive capability of equal to or greater than Lancer’s offensive capabilities.
            And her offensive powers are almost certainly enough to overwhelm Lancer’s defenses.
            The only way out of this kind of situation is surely to have Lancer break down her defensive Noble Phantasm barrier by use of his own Noble Phantasm.
            Even her powers cannot compete with that.
            …But Lancer’s Noble Phantasm is too destructive.
            In a place like this, it can’t be used for fear of causing damage and civilian casualties, and it will almost certainly call other enemies to them.

            So until they find a suitable place.
            …Their best strategy is just to retreat, and call Lancer back to them with a Command Spell.
            Getting away alive means that one Command Spell isn’t such a terrible price to pay.

            “—Come on, Ein.”
            Rose is staring off at the horizon.
            “We’ll get caught by enemy Masters if we dawdle around here for too long.”
            “You’re right.”
            He allows himself to gasp for oxygen just a little more.
            And finally, he straightens up.

            “—Let’s run.
            “It isn’t too much further now.”

            They are off again with a great cracking of pavement.
            Rose is a great magus.
            Her strengthening of their limbs will still hold for a while yet, and that should increase their speed greatly.
            …All he can do, is believe that Lancer will be able to hold out until they make it safely inside their bounded field—

(9-2 interlude out.)

            It is probably near midnight.

            “Ha—ah.”
            My breathing is pained.
            My body is hot.
            My body is very hot.
            …It won’t be very long until I can subdue this feeling.
            It should subside by dawn at the very latest.
            “Mn—ah.”
            But honestly.
            …I am approaching my limit.

            The pain and discomfort are small.
            They are small, but they are continuous.
            It hurts.
            There is no room for me in my body, my Magic Circuits are clogged with prana, and all I can do is breathe dazedly.

            And.
            …To make matters worse.
            Gulcasa is staring at me intently from the side of the bed, and has been for a while.

            It is just the two of us.
            He hasn’t called Roswell yet.
            The door is closed, the lights are on at their dimmest setting, and I’m lying on the messy bedsheets that have become rumpled by my trying to get comfortable.
            I am out of energy.
            …Or perhaps it’s just that I have so much energy I conversely can’t even move.
            But the point stands.
            I’ve given up on squirming about to make things easier on my body, especially as Gulcasa told me that I will just wind up hurting my almost-healed ankle again.
            …I can’t even feel the injury.
            But my body is so hot that I’m going to go crazy.
            I can’t suppress my shivering.
            My lower belly feels bloated and heavy.
            I feel as if my spine is going to break.
            But if I let go to the pain and surrender, I’ll probably start hallucinating and convulsing again—which is an experience I would rather not repeat.
            I don’t want to see any more nightmares like that.
            Give me a dreamless sleep, or let me stay awake like this until dawn—

            But really.
            Gulcasa’s stare is intense.
            He looks at me as if he’s arguing with himself.
            His teeth tease his lower lip between them, chewing at it so lightly that there’s only the faintest impression whenever he lets go and goes back to simply staring.

            I don’t know how long his eyes have been on me anymore.
            I could drown in that amber.
            …I’d prefer it.
            Let me melt into that color like the sun, until I can’t feel anything anymore—

            “…Nessiah.”
            Finally.
            He speaks in a hesitant voice.
            “I want to try something, if you’ll hear me out.”

            “Ah, ah—go on.”
            Pained voices make their way out when I go to reply.
            …It’s frustrating.
            For so long I’ve been able to keep pain of this degree inside.

            “—”
            He takes a deep breath.
            His crimson hair flutters slightly, and he closes his eyes.

            “I want to—try to steal your cold.”

            He looks at me.
            …His face is slightly red.
            His gaze is unbearably intense, and even though we’re not touching I can all but feel his heart beating against my skin through the air.

            “—It’s not a cold or anything you could steal.”
            I breathe the words out and close my eyes.

            “I know.
            “—But if part of the problem is that you’ve got too much prana in the system, I might at least be able to make it so that you can sleep soundly if I can take it away.
            “…With your body the way that it is, and with how long it’s been, I’m well aware that our options are limited right now.
            “But if it’s okay, then I—I want to do the only thing I can to make you feel better.”

            …Is that, no good.
            He doesn’t say so, but I can hear the question in his tone of voice.

            My heated-up body beats with blood.
            …Maybe I’ve been waiting for him to say this.
            My breathing was already wild, and it quickens.

            “……Nessiah.”
            Perhaps because of my silence, he sounds uneasy.
            When I look back up, Gulcasa averts his gaze with a shyness I haven’t seen from him in a very long while.
            …I feel almost as if I say anything too harsh at a time like this, he might run away and cry.
            How unfair.
            It’s when he shows these unexpected flashes of his old lack of confidence that he’s the most charming.
            ……I wonder what he would say if I told him so to his face? If I did that, he might be shocked and cry for real.

            “…My body’s burning hot and it’s a bit painful.
            “And you already know that it’s difficult for me to move, so I only worry that I wouldn’t be able to do anything for you—”

            “Ah.”
            Gulcasa sits straight up with a serious face and goes red.
            “—You don’t have to worry about that.
            “I’m selfishly stealing your cold by myself, so there isn’t any need for you to push yourself, especially in your condition.
            “Uh, in any case if you do anything too involved you’ll just hurt yourself, so we can save anything that needs more exertion for another time.”

            “Hmm.”
            I should probably protest.
            …I don’t think it’s good for me to be the only one in pleasure, but Gulcasa’s and my tastes are different when it comes to sensuality.
            I’m not as altruistic.
            ……And, even though it’s selfish of me—I know that even if this doesn’t work as he intends, this will help me to relax physically.

            “…You know.”
            “—What?”
            “I’ve missed holding you.
            “If you hadn’t teased me about it earlier, I probably would’ve gone on the offensive a lot earlier than this.
            “…So, Gulcasa.
            “If you want to take responsibility, then you can do your best to steal my cold if you’d really like to try doing so.
            “…I’ll apologize in advance for letting myself get to the point where it’s this one-sided.
            “I’ll do something nice for you some other time, so I’ll leave things up to you.
            “—I’m, all right with it.”

                        …So, touch me the way you always did.

            “—”
            Gulcasa looks at me for a while.
            …He doesn’t smile, but there is great tenderness in his expression.

            “…Okay.
            “I’ll, make you feel better now—”

            “—”
            And.
            His hands come to rest on my shoulders lightly as he kisses me.
            I close my eyes.
            …Oh.
            If my body was hot before, it’s on fire now.
            Just this touch, and the warm presence of Gulcasa’s body above mine, is enough to arouse me hopelessly.
            …I can’t help it.
            It’s just been a very long time since anyone has held me this gently.
            And—the natural delayed reaction to my body being so overcharged with prana, the reaction that I’ve been suppressing—
            There’s no use in fighting it anymore.
            My breathing goes out of control, and when Gulcasa’s hands shift down to my chest I can’t suppress my voice.

            “Ah—”
            It’s so clear that I should be embarrassed.
            My vision’s gone blurry.
            Beneath his hands, my nipples are starting to stand up.
            He deepens the kiss slowly and with care, and I can feel vaguely that his body is shaking as he suppresses his own desire.

            “Ah—ha, ah—”
            I can’t kill my voice.
            My desire to do so is rapidly vanishing.
            Gulcasa’s hands run over my skin through my clothes, his fingertips circling sensitive places.
            The brush of his tongue against mine is making the inside of my head go white.
            I want to cling on to his clothes or to the sheets, but I don’t have the energy to make fists.
            And so, I can’t suppress the intense pleasure I feel.
            The muscles of my thighs tighten, and my erection throbs as hard as my heart beats.
            It’s enough to make me worry whether I can really hold on for any longer already.

            “—Ah.”
            Gulcasa pulls back from the kiss, and I suck in air desperately.
            …Just looking at him is so unbearable right now.
            His eyes are lidded with arousal, the pupils dilated so much that the color of his irises seems almost brown, and he pants open-mouthed with an unfocused stare.

            “—Wow, you seem pretty worked-up already.”
            His hands trace down my chest, and when the pads of his index fingers run over my nipples I can’t choke back the urgent whining that rises up from the back of my throat.
            …Everything is because it’s been so long, and because of the state I’m in.
            Even though I know I shouldn’t be, I’m almost ashamed to be so open about my own arousal in front of Gulcasa.
            …I want to seem a little more composed than this.

            But he smiles.
            A disordered, tender smile.
            That gentle expression eases just a little of my anxiety about my own helplessness.

            “—You’re one…, to talk.
            “Just—listen to yourself.”

            “—Mm.”
            He leans back in and presses a kiss like velvet to the base of my throat.
            “I’ve wanted to do this again for so long, I’m even nervous about where to start.
            “Isn’t that strange?”

            “—No.”
            I want to just embrace him already.
            But my exhausted body won’t respond to me.
            All I can do is move my lips and control my voice.
            “—I know that—I’m the same.”

            “…Heheh.
            “Then—I guess we’re just both being stupid.”
            His hands move lightly to my waist and pull my skirts up so that they don’t chafe against the sensitive shaft of my penis.
            “If we’re both being dumb together, then it’s not such a thing to be ashamed of.”

            My back arches as he presses a wet and open-mouthed kiss to my stomach.
            “Ah—ah, ahh—”
            The uncontrollable sounds of pleasure don’t stop.

            “Nessiah—your voice.”
            Gulcasa’s words are breathy, and they catch on a note like a moan.
            “Let me—keep hearing that voice.”

            He raises himself up one last time, and moves so that the angle will be more natural.
            …One hand settles on my hip to keep me from moving too harshly, and the other splays out against my lower stomach and makes me want to squirm.
            The first two fingers and thumb settle against the root of my cock, and in the same movement Gulcasa leans down to take the head with a soft sound.

            “—”
            The wordless noise that escapes my lungs at the gentle wet sensation isn’t anything I could possibly control.
            The fever in my head boils up hopelessly and I struggle to keep from ejaculating, breathing painfully.
            Gulcasa bows his head a bit further, unconcerned as if he hasn’t a care in the world.
            Even though the rough warmth of his tongue seeks out the most sensitive places under the head with experienced grace, the sensation feels completely new.
            …This is bad.
            “—Ah—mm—”
            I can’t suppress my voice or my desire.
            I was already hard, but the soft feeling of light suckling on the very tip of the head makes my already-stiff arousal swell with even more blood.
            And—

            “Ah.”
            Gulcasa lifts his head for just a moment and swallows visibly.
            “You’re already getting wet, aren’t you—”
            Idiot, don’t say such things in such an aroused-sounding voice!
            …I can’t say it.
            I don’t have the self-control to reprimand him, and precome keeps beading up at the tip.
            He raises his right hand to hold the shaft lightly, and licks it away matter-of-factly.

            …I can’t keep watching this.
            It’s not even that he lacks hesitance or restraint whatsoever, or that there are very few things more erotic than watching myself be kissed and cradled with this amount of love and desire.
            …It’s that Gulcasa is so red-faced that I am simultaneously terribly embarrassed for his shyness and assaulted with the desire to just let go and cover his face with my come—

            “—,—”
            I’m getting dizzy.
            I can’t do that, but the mental picture of it is tantalizing, and that is the number one reason why I absolutely cannot do that.
            …It would be crude, and dirtying his beautiful hair would be awful of me considering how long it would take to clean.
            The way that I am now, I couldn’t even help do that.
            So, right now I have to endure no matter how strong the temptation.

            “—”
            Gulcasa’s breathing is deep and rhythmic and intense.
            He’s taking in too much air.
            That, his reddened face, and his overly-dilated pupils tell me that he is at least as aroused as I am, which is some comfort to know.

            “Nessiah, don’t hold back.
            “When you can’t stand it anymore and need to come, go ahead and do it—”
            He says something ridiculous and moves his hand again, so that the side of his thumb is just grazing my balls as he leans down to swallow as much of the shaft as he can.
            Rather than stroking the shaft with his fingers and continuing to knead at the base of the head with his tongue, he slowly raises his head and bows it.
            Every time I feel the head reach the back of his mouth, my vision fades more and more.
            It’s not just that his entire mouth is caressing me with warmth and wetness.
            …His tongue continues to work and knead at the underside of my cock, and he makes faint moans as he moves.
            Even though the voice I’ve given up on controlling drowns out the lewd wet noises and Gulcasa’s low cries of desire, the vibration of the sound is still transmitted through my penis and drives me near mad with arousal.

            “—Gulcasa—Gulcasa, Gulcasa, I can’t—”
            So you need to let go.
            …You need to let go of me, or else I won’t be able to hold back anymore.
            It feels so intensely good that I can’t help but tear up.
            And even though there’s no way he hasn’t heard me, he just pulls back enough to suck intensely on the head.
            His fingertips touch against my balls in an effort to please me that makes me sob, and he attacks my whole penis with his mouth and tongue while making low urgent noises.

            “Gulcasa—Gulcasa, no, I’m going to—”

            And.
            He opens his eyes to stare up at me.
            Intensely.
            …Unfairly.

            “—It’s all right.
            “Ah—mm. Go ahead and give yourself to me—”

            He leans in.
            He leans in, greedy and selfless, and sucks so hard that the last of my self-control crumbles.

            “—,—……!!”
            My whole body contracts and arcs up off the bed.
            My muscles tremble and I shiver with the force and length of the orgasm.
            Gulcasa holds on to my hips and doesn’t let go.
            His eyes closed and a beseeching expression on his face, his throat moves visibly.
            And again, and again.
            He makes one short pained noise when it’s too much and threads of milky white semen mixed with clear saliva run down from the corner of his lips and dirty his face.
            “Ah—hah.”
            His lips finally let go as my penis relaxes, and he breathes heavily with clouded eyes as come forms threads from his mouth to the head.

            “—”
            I can’t take it anymore, and close my eyes as my body collapses.
            The sound of Gulcasa’s strained breathing rings in the room along with my deeper and more relaxed breaths.
            …My whole body feels loose and incredible.
            It’s been so long since I’ve felt this way that I don’t even want to think of how long it’s been.

            “Ah—hah.”
            Gulcasa’s intoxicated breathing entices me to open my eyes.
            He wipes his face awkwardly with the back of his hand, and still panting, he smiles at me.
            …He smiles at me with love and devotion so intense that I want to look away but can’t.
            He’s blushed bright red with arousal and embarrassment, and he was too clumsy to actually clean his face completely, so there are still drips of come and trails of saliva along the edge of his jaw.
            He looks at me with disheveled hair and honey-colored eyes, and he smiles.

            “Are you—feeling any better now—?”
            …I think I manage to nod.
            “—Good. That’s good, I’m really glad—”

            …Oh.
            I want to stay awake.
            I want to pay him back for his kindness and make him feel as good as he did for me, but I’m completely worn out.
            …I’ve worked too hard to bear everything up until now, and such a long and intense orgasm has sapped away all the energy I had left.
            ……I’m sorry, Gulcasa.
            I’ll make you feel twice as good as this next time.
            You always push yourself to swallow it when I come, no matter how many times I tell you there isn’t any need to go so far.
            This isn’t something that I could ever do for you, but—
            I’ll make sure you know that I appreciate it later, so…

            “—It’s okay.
            “You don’t have to make that face like you’re worrying about me.
            “I can take care of the rest myself, so you just go ahead and go to sleep—”

            All I can do is close my eyes.
            I feel him touch my forehead gently and run his fingers through my hair.
            “—I love you.”

            I think I’m able to say so in return.
            …But the world around me is so hazy.
            …Next time.
            I fall asleep thinking of vague promises like that, feeling more relieved and at ease than I have in an impossibly long time—

(interlude 9-3)

            “—Ah.”

            …Nessiah’s voice.
            His voice, the taste of him and the heat of his body…

            “Ah. Ah—nn.”

            It was really all that he was able to do to stop there.
            …At a time like this, there wouldn’t be any meaning in continuing having sex.

            “Ahh.”

            Because even if Gulcasa has accepted the burden of his excess prana for now, Nessiah was bearing up under so much pain for so long.
            Even relaxed, even with his fever broken, he is still ill and weak.
            …Trying to continue into further lovemaking would most likely hurt him.

            “Ah—ahh—”

            So.
            Letting him go ahead to sleep was, unquestionably, the right decision.

            “Nessiah—I—!!”

            …Gulcasa swallows his own scream.
            Even in the narrow closet-like space of the shower stall, his voice will reverberate.
            With the hot water beating down on his body like heavy rain, he shudders and bears it.

            “Ah—hah.”
            His breathing is ragged and his vision is heavily blurred.
            He supports himself with both arms against the tiled wall as his hair clings heavily against his back.
            …It isn’t even anywhere near enough.
            Just thinking about Nessiah’s slender body flushed and limp with pleasure makes his arousal threaten to build up again.
            The wall and the floor of the shower are stained with thick white, and just looking at it makes him feel ashamed.
            …He should be able to bear his own physical reactions so much better than this, no matter how he tries to excuse it by saying that it’s just been so long.
            For now, the most important thing is that he was able to relieve Nessiah’s pain.
            Seeking pleasure and mutual fulfillment with his Master can always come at some later date, when Nessiah is physically able to bear it.

            But logic isn’t enough to dampen the way that he feels.
            His body shudders powerlessly under the heavy spray of water.

            “I want to… with him.”
            He says so half-consciously in a dreaming tone.
            …He knows that he could wind up staying here the entire night, until the hot water runs out.
            If he just stands here and dwells on it, he’ll keep getting hopelessly aroused like an idiot.

            So he swallows his breath and grits his teeth.
            He needs to be able to return to Nessiah’s side.
            Right now, the demands of his body are in the way of that, and so without hesitation he turns the knob on the wall to change the water temperature.

            “—Shit, that’s cold.”
            The shock causes his body to jump and curl into itself.
            …It’s miserable, but it’s also a relief.
            Eyes shut tightly, he hugs himself and shivers underneath the cold shower as if in penance.
            Like he’s punishing himself, he waits until the traces of his guilty self-indulgence have all washed down the drain.
            And only then does he turn the shower off and step back into the wide bathroom as a whole.
            Shaking with the sudden chill of the outside air, he materializes his clothes and leaves the room with his hair still dripping with the cold water.

            …His priorities, watching over his sleeping Master in case of anything happening—he needs to be able to take care of things like that.
            “…As usual, you’re a handful. And you don’t have any shame, either.”
            Nessiah sleeps soundly, stretched out against the mattress.
            He touches the pale cheek briefly, pulls up a chair, and rests his arms on the bed so that he might lean forward upon them.
            …Until the sun rises.
            ……Until this trial is over, and the next day can finally begin—

(9-3 interlude out.)

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            Those days, that the young captain and the allies who had become his family ran through with all their hearts—
            Those days where the suffering of one was borne by all, everyone saved each other in turn, and as long as there was a goal to run towards there wasn’t anything difficult to think about—
            Night fell on them, slow and natural, with all the finality of the last curtain call.

            …Yes, it was night that the first signs began to arrive.
            Their forces had been set to stand guard outside a meeting the landgrave had set with mysterious guests, and not even knowing themselves what was being discussed, they were surprised to actually have to fight off attacks of various assassins throughout the night.
            Still hours from the dawn, the mysterious conference ended, and the landgrave took the young captain and his subordinates and explained the situation.
            The other people with whom the landgrave had spoken were all like-minded nobles and lower generals.
            …Now that the landgrave had gathered this much power and authority, they had all approached him and come to a decision.

            They would rebel.

            With such an emperor on the throne who would ignore the needs of his people and try to wrangle control over his land by fear and poorly executed military force, the day that the empire would fall was surely not far off.
            The emperor was the last of the imperial family, and had thus far failed to produce a successor.
            …His apparent sterility was only befitting of the slow and steady weakening of the ancient line, which had even lost the innate demon powers of the empire’s founders.
            Either the emperor would drive the country to destruction with his incompetent governing, or he would die heirless and the empire would tear itself apart.

            …In that case, it would be best to strike preemptively, remove the emperor, and install in his place a new leader with the skill to resurrect the country and the charisma to command the loyalty of the disillusioned people.
            And with the power and influence that the landgrave and the young captain had gathered, that was now possible.
            Various nobles and merchants would pledge their loyalty to the landgrave, and the common people would lend their strength to the young captain.
            With the two of them handling the political and military affairs respectively, they would raise a great army and move out to strike down the rotten government once and for all.

            The landgrave said that the young captain had been chosen by the conspirators as the best candidate for the general to lead the new rebel army.
            …It was a proclamation that left him speechless and bewildered.
            As he was unable to answer affirmatively or negatively to that proposition, the army simply retired for the night as the preliminary preparations for war began.

            …It was the night after that.
            The young captain went outside the private army’s barracks to mull over his choices, and to his surprise his childhood friend came to join him.
            Together, the two of them talked it over.
            …She told him that logically, this was the best and most effective decision, and that it was right to put the faith of the people on his shoulders, as he had become appropriately strong to bear such a thing.
            Even though they might be able to accomplish the same goal slowly and with more peaceful methods if they did not choose to rebel, they could not afford to wait.
            The people suffering at this very moment could not afford to wait.
            All the same, she felt the same vague uneasiness as he.
            They were both sensitive to the premonition that everything was about to change at a moment’s notice, and that perhaps they would lose something that could never be taken back.

            …But.
            They were together.
            They had better resources than before, they had become strong, and most of all—the young captain had the friendship and trust of so many people now.
            As long as they were together, then surely there was nothing to fear—

            He noticed, vaguely, that there was something odd about the way she was behaving.
            As if she was debating whether or not to say something.
            It was so unlike her, the girl who would always react to things with her honest and blunt opinion even when it would be more prudent not to, that he couldn’t help but be puzzled.
            But when he tried to make her open up about it—

            A voice split the night.
            A voice ordered archers to fire, and only then did the two of them realize that a vast force was approaching their barracks, sneaking up on them while they were absorbed in their discussion.
            …It was the main force of the emperor’s army.
            Someone had leaked the plans to rebel, and the lead general who knew the young captain’s strength and skill had come directly to destroy the army and make rebellion impossible.

            The situation was chaotic.
            And to make things worse, the landgrave himself was nowhere to be seen, having departed earlier to discuss things with other conspirators and not having plans to come back until early in the morning.
            The young captain was able to rally his forces to beat off the first wave, but the enemy had come in great numbers and with great determination, whereas his own men were trapped in their own enclosure and were not ready for such a large-scale battle.
            At the very least, they must escape to more advantageous terrain.
            There was a hidden exit at the back of the barracks where they could escape across the river at their backs in longboats if they were not discovered, but there was every possibility that the enemy had already discovered that place and were waiting.
            …But faced with the two choices of risking an escape and staying here to fight against dangerous odds, it was clear which was the better option.

            Even though the young captain and his childhood friend the erstwhile tactician were against it—the prophet and his other childhood friend the head scout made their plan.
            As the least conspicuous soldier available to them and the one with the best ability to sense danger, she would go ahead and check the entrance alone while the army’s main forces kept the imperial soldiers busy.
            If it was safe, she would signal them, then go ahead and take a boat to the wastelands in the west, where she would wait at the place they had first agreed to form this army with the landgrave.

            …It was an intense situation.
            The young captain could barely keep the hurried strategy meeting from dissolving into an argument, as his friend the erstwhile tactician was adamantly against allowing their childhood friend to put herself into such a dangerous situation.
            Even though the possibility of harm coming to the girl who’d always been like a mother to him made him anxious, he knew very well that it was the best plan available.
            …The prophet put it bluntly, but the young captain agreed—the erstwhile tactician’s feelings for the girl he’d always admired were clouding his judgment.

            …She disappeared into the darkness, and until the signal came, he closed his eyes against his own impending tears of panic and threw himself into battle to keep himself from imagining the possibility of failure.

            When they received the word that it was all right, his body shook, but seeing his allies watching him for leadership, he directed the evacuation carefully.
            …After another hour’s worth of fighting, finally the prophet held his hand once tightly and disappeared in the direction of the hidden exit, leaving only the young captain and his childhood friend the erstwhile tactician guarding the entrance.
            If they simply disappeared like the rest of the army, surely the enemy would grasp the true nature of their plan.
            …It was his friend who suggested it.
            They would use their last moments in this place that had been their home to cause their foe to expect a last charge instead of a retreat.

            Even though it would be a bit painful to lose this place that had been his first shelter, the young captain knew that it was the smallest possible loss.
            Having a roof over his head was a luxury that he could do without for a while, and nice things could always be replaced.
            What was most important was the lives of the people who had come to mean so much to him, and even by sacrificing the shape of his “home” to protect them, his real place to belong would still be protected.

            So, unhesitatingly, he set the barracks ablaze.
            The last two men to leave the building, the two childhood friends, watched the flames reach up towards the heavens as they crossed the river.

            …But.
            When they reached the appointed meeting place, the girl who should have been there waiting for them was missing.
            In the rocky wasteland, it was difficult to track where she might have disappeared to, and no one could believe that she might have simply wandered off on her own without reason.
            The army huddled together in a state of panic, having lost the shield at its back as well as its guidepost for what to do from here on out, and the young captain did his utmost to keep his people together while still directing the search for the missing girl.
            His childhood friend the erstwhile tactician cursed the heavens, cursed the scouts who came back without clues, and cursed even the young captain for the callousness of remaining calm.
            …Of course, in his heart the young captain was the most terrified of any of them.
            The thought that some harm might have befallen the only mother he had ever truly known still threatened to overwhelm him, so strong that he could easily have given in and curled up in hopelessness and confusion.
            But for the sake of everyone looking to him for direction, he had to stay alert and pretend to be strong.

            Eventually, one scout came back with news of an unidentified armed force to the northwest.
            With no other leads to go on, the young captain mobilized his troops for a cautious approach, and what lay in wait for them was an unexpected and unfortunate scene.
            …It was their employer, the landgrave, who should have been away during the time of the attack; with him was their head scout.
            The young captain was already breathing a sigh of relief that the two of them were safe when one of his allies pointed out that the landgrave had a knife at the girl’s throat.

            When they came out into the open demanding answers, the landgrave simply declared that all was exactly as it seemed.
            With the man’s coldness and his childhood friend’s subdued apologies for having been caught ringing in his head, the young captain was paralyzed, but at that time the prophet confronted the landgrave in his stead.
            …That the landgrave had leaked the plans to rebel and then abandoned his own army to imperial attack, and here was attempting to destroy them with the threat of harm to his hostage.
            And the landgrave confirmed everything but his guilt in the information leak, and demanded that they do battle here and now.

            It was a simple story of base human weakness.
            The landgrave was their employer, not their comrade, and above all else he was a politician, a courier of lies with a fastidious need for control.
            There had been friction between him and the young captain several times in the past over the topic of obedience, and so if the situation were looked at rationally perhaps it might not have been such a surprise.
            After all, the young captain had grown vastly more powerful, and he was looked to as the leader of the army rather than the landgrave who simply paid their salaries and handed out missions for them to fulfill.
            And now that the landgrave would be a participant in the political side of the rebellion whereas the young captain had been chosen to lead the entire army, the landgrave’s paranoia and need for control would only increase.
            …The landgrave was simply a far weaker and pettier person than his position demanded.

            But to the young captain, who had admired him so strongly and desired his respect so much—for the young captain, who had begun to frame the landgrave as a replacement father, that reality was simply too cruel.

            His childhood friends weren’t able to comfort him and subdue the chaos of his grief and helpless rage, for the girl who had been his mother had already been taken away from him, and the boy who had been his brother and first friend was wholly consumed with hatred for the person who was threatening his loved one.
            …And the traveler who he had always received advice from was busy helping to rally the troops for battle in his place.
            The ones who stayed at his side to support him in those moments of bearing up under the pain were the prophet and the knight, who simply had him acknowledge that there was no longer any choice but to do battle.

            The landgrave’s soldiers were powerful, but did not have the numbers nor the experience of the young captain’s troops, and the battle was vicious and one-sided.
            …And so the landgrave, knowing his inevitable loss, called a cease-fire by brandishing his hostage at the young captain.
            While the orphaned army laid down their weapons without any other choice, he demanded that the erstwhile tactician go to cut off the young captain’s head.
            By doing so, the landgrave told his former army, they would buy their survival and the release of his captive.

            …Oh, so that’s it.
            For just a moment, the young captain felt a great sense of detachment, realizing that he would die this way.
            His ideals were everything to him, and he was more than willing and ready to step into the mantle of the savior of the weak—but at the same time, he simply could not sacrifice this person to do so.

            But the next moment, her cry of mourning split the night sky.
            A strong, pure, and determined voice.

                        “—Gram Blaze can definitely change the world.
                        “…And I can’t take watching someone I love die for me—”

            She accepted the landgrave’s blade into her body, flew from the edge of the tall cliffs, and broke her body against the unforgiving ground below.

            …Time stopped for him then, stopped even as his allies called out their rage and their desire for revenge to the night, even as the landgrave himself prepared his remaining troops for the resumption of battle.
            In that moment, all the young captain understood was that the only person who had always been there to take care of him would never return to him, and that if he had died instead it would not have come to this.

            Grief, rage, and self-hatred all erupted from his body in the form of deep scarlet flame.
            The paltry amount of power that he had amassed was meaningless.
            If he had been stronger, he could have saved her—those kinds of thoughts were all he had to cling to.
            And the pain reached deep down into his heart, and answered him with the kind of strength that even gods and demons might fear, a roiling and oppressive fire that caused friend and foe to recoil from him in shock.
            …But the flame of his grief folded in on itself in the next heartbeat, leaving him exhausted physically and emotionally.

            The battle ended, cold and anticlimactic.
            …The young captain watched his foster father die, too burned out by grief to muster the ability to hate or blame the man for his pitiful end.
            …He watched his foster mother die, smiling deliriously at him until her breath ran out.
            The plain truth of the matter was simply that his own stupidity and weakness was the cause of all of this.
            The traveling warrior, the only member of their band who was still perfectly calm, demanded that he rally his forces and give them direction.
            It was impossible.
            He could not answer to words as cruel as those.

            In his place, the prophet spoke.
            The young captain listened in silence as the prophet dealt calmly and quietly with practical matters such as the army’s vulnerability and lack of shelter, and that the best and only way to remedy such things would be to borrow aid from the country and simply run forward with the revolution.
            And when the young captain asked how it was possible for them to aim for such a lofty goal when they could not even rescue one of their own, he received an extraordinary answer—that they would utilize the fearsome power that he himself had unleashed for just a moment.
            The prophet explained that the young captain almost certainly had inherited the blood of the great demonic dragon that gave the empire its name, giving him access to great destructive power that could be harnessed to overwhelm all obstacles in their way.
            But given that logic, his powers must be under some kind of seal, and so if he intended to find a way to make use of them, he must travel across country borders to the distant wasteland where that demon had fought against human heroes and died—the place where research was being done even now on that distant past.

            It wasn’t anything as bright or as pure as hope.
            But it galvanized the young captain, gave him a signpost to the only future he would be able to accept now.
            Deaf to the shock of his men, he grasped the prophet’s hands and forced himself to stand, calling out orders.
            The death of the girl who had raised him was not anything that could be taken back.
            But if that was the case—then at least he would become so powerful that he would never again be forced to relinquish the things important to him, powerful enough to crush all injustice forever, powerful enough to take the dream they had dreamt together and make it real.
            His body was still wavering, and his young face was still ravaged with tears.
            Saying that he had recovered would be a falsehood, as he had been given a scar that would never heal for his entire life.

            But still, he stood up.
            And his eyes that were yet dark with his grief were nevertheless eyes that gazed unwaveringly into the future—

 

(interlude 10-1)

            “—So that’s it.”

            In the early morning, still too early for the dawn, the witch stands atop the balcony.

            “I see now, so that’s it.”

            Alone, without even her Servant to observe her, the witch hides her smile behind the curved fingers of her gloved hand.

            …It had been an excellent decision to have magically animated familiars patrol the town for surveillance purposes.
            Even better, she had not even encountered any resistance on the way, as apparently all of the other magi were too amateurish, too naïve, or too arrogant to gather information from such means.
            The night skies and the corners of Fuyuki are all hers for the plundering.
            And because of that, she has been able to keep up with the progress of the war by directly tapping the source.

            It’s a technique that adapts the old methods of the magi by specifically mimicking the new technology of the era.
            For all that she doesn’t hold much with the views of the Magic Association, she has always thought that the new Lord El-Melloi has the right of things.
            If magi cannot adapt with the times, they will gradually become so dislocated from Gaia that they will become entirely alien from the world, and will then be destroyed before they can fulfill the desires that they can only pursue with magecraft.
            For a magus such as she who desires to know and manipulate the very laws of the world, it is only natural to adopt the middle road of magical revisionism.

            With familiars that imitate surveillance cameras and wire taps, she has kept track of the deaths of Assassin, Archer, and the two Riders.
            The war is nearly half over.
            …Of course, her participation in battle has been severely limited due to her inferior Servant.
            It was luck of the draw and could not be helped, as her choice of artifacts to use in her summoning were few, but the Servant she has summoned is an irregular class that does not have the innate bonuses of any of the other Servants, and can only rely on its natural abilities.
            And her Servant is clearly inferior in combat strength when compared to many of the other surviving opponents.
            To make matters worse, the Servant itself is contrary and frustrating to manipulate, even though it should only be a tool—and she has already wasted a Command Spell in a vain attempt to get it to behave.

            So, she has been limited to small skirmishes and surveillance.
            It’s boring, but all the same it has given her useful information.
            …The first was the nature of Caster’s Master.
            That Servant had always acted on its own without ever being accompanied by its Master, but in the aftermath of last night’s battle and the escape of Caster’s targets, she was able to glean the secret behind that thing’s movements.

            And—

            “To think the Grail War had something so convenient.
            “—As long as I’m able to obtain it, then there’s no need even to wait for the Grand Grail to open—”

            The witch sneers.
            The witch smiles in a narrow grin like a crescent moon, and turns her gaze towards the city of Shinto across the river—

(10-1 interlude out.)

            “—”
            I wake to a distinct sense of warmth and comfort that’s so relaxing I’m tempted to simply turn over and go back to sleep entirely.
            When I stretch out, my body is loose and limber, and responds easily to my commands.
            …My ankle hurts a bit if it’s moved suddenly, but as long as I don’t stress it too badly that shouldn’t be a problem.
            I feel so refreshed that I am honestly a bit shocked.

            “—I can’t believe it.
            “His idiotic plan was actually a success.”

            …I know better than to expect that I’m cured.
            Beyond the fact that the Grail War is still going, it’s simply that under any other circumstance my prana levels would be dangerously low.
            Gulcasa has stayed materialized for almost the entire war, he has fought in several battles, and on top of all of that I gave him a large amount of prana last night.
            But with the excess energy that my body contains, that means that I am almost back to normal physically.

            …This won’t last forever.
            Well, unless measures are taken regularly, I’ll eventually become feverish and uncoordinated again over the space of two or three days.
            So the answer is apparently to enjoy myself while I can, and take the excuse to pursue sensuality with Gulcasa at my next opportunity.
            …It had been so long that I’d almost forgotten how nice those things could feel, and on top of that I really should pay him back for foolishly pushing himself and refusing to take similar treatment.
            I did fall asleep before I could do anything reciprocal, but even so.

            “…Well.”
            This is a pronounced change from last morning, where moving about was difficult due to my body’s numbness and my own foggy head.
            It hurts a bit trying to figure out how to maneuver on this foot, but my head is perfectly clear, and that makes doing things like navigating the halls and staircase considerably easier.

            “—Oh, you’re awake.
            “Are you feeling better?”

            When I make it down to the general downstairs area, I am greeted by Roswell peeking around the wall at me with a smile.

            “—Quite a bit, yes.
            “Although I do believe I’ll need to ask you to do the honors on what remains of this injury, as it’s a bit of a strain deciding how best to walk on this foot as it is.”

            Roswell leaves the kitchen and comes into the hall, walking up to me to touch my forehead with the back of his hand.
            Perhaps because he’s so brisk about the motion, it doesn’t feel invasive, but rather like a doctor carrying out an examination.

            “…It seems like your fever has come down quite a bit.
            “You should still rest today, but please do find a place to settle down here. I should have food ready in a while, and I’ll finish healing your sprain as soon as that’s done.”
            And, continuing in his softspoken and clinical manner, Roswell escorts me into the living room with a smile.
            “Besides, there’s someone here who’s been worried about you.”

            —Oh.
            When we reach the room, Gulcasa sits up from where he was apparently spacing out on the couch.
            He looks at me with wide eyes, and—
            “…Nessiah.”
            He stands as if by instinct, like he can’t sit still just looking at me.
            …He comes over to me in hurried steps, so much so that I’m a little worried he’ll trip over something since he’s obviously not watching.
            But he arrives in the entrance to the hallway safely, and reaches out to touch my shoulders.

            “Good morning.”
            “Wha—”
            Gulcasa just stares at me, flabbergasted.
            …Hey now, you’re the one who came up with the plan, so don’t even start acting like you had no confidence in it now.

            “This isn’t the kind of time for stuff like saying good morning, jeez.
            “—Are you feeling all right? How’s your fever doing, and what about your body?”
            …Gulcasa questions me in a panic.
            “Hmm, well, what does it look like to you?
            “If I were in a state like yesterday, I wouldn’t have made it down the stairs safely, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to speak to you like this.”
            Gulcasa listens to me, and then turns to Roswell.
            …Look, just because there are a few things that I can’t talk to you about concerning my health doesn’t mean that you have to second-guess me to this degree.
            I’m in a good mood, so I’ll forgive you, but we’re definitely talking about this if it happens again—

            “As you can tell, he’s certainly lucid.
            “I’m going to get back to cooking, so the two of you should go ahead and rest.”
            “—Right.”

            And Roswell hands me over to Gulcasa, walking off like his job is done.
            “Sigh. If I’d known that this was going to happen, I’d have fought harder to be able to get the kitchen this morning.
            “It’s not that he’s a bad cook by any means, but really, I’d rather be the one directing the celebration here.”
            He complains in a low tone.
            From the kitchen, Roswell does not seem to hear.
            All the same, I think I see Yggdra glaring in our direction as if she’s just picked up on Gulcasa’s insinuation of Roswell having a lower skill level than him.

            “I thought the schedule was put in place so that you wouldn’t have to fight?”
            “—That’s true, but—”
            Gulcasa shakes his head and sighs.
            “I guess that it isn’t really that important.
            “Whatever, I have you here with me, and that’s all I need.
            “……And, Nessiah.”
            “—Yes?”
            “Well—last night was kind of a big gamble, so—are you willing to forgive me for being reckless about your health?”
            Gulcasa asks that while turning a little bit red and looking at me nervously.

            “—”
            The question is so unexpected that I wind up staring at him in dumbfounded shock for a moment, but—
            “…You’re a fool.
            “If you think that’s something that I would get angry at you for, or something that you need to ask my forgiveness for, then you really are stupid.
            “Gulcasa.
            “…Even without your desire to make me feel better even for a short time, that’s something that I’ve wanted to do with you again.
            “So, don’t apologize to me or look at me like that, or you’re going to ruin my good mood.”

            “—”
            Gulcasa breathes out.
            Still red-faced, he favors me with a gentle, relieved smile.
            “…Yeah.
            “—I’m just really glad it worked.”

            …Heh.
            I can see what you’re trying to do with that expression, and I can’t let you know that it’s working.
            Even though I can already feel my face heating up and understand that that’s a lost cause, I at least have to pay you back—

            “Of course it did.
            “It’s something that you put your whole heart into, like usual.
            “Although—”
            “Although?”
            Gulcasa looks at me blankly.
            So, I arrange my expression into a sweet smile.
            “—I certainly will feel better tonight if you at least let me attack you in return.”

            Aha.
            Gulcasa goes as brilliantly red as the madder skies of the town at sunset.
            And even though he tucks his chin to his chest in embarrassment, he still smiles bashfully and bites his lower lip.
            “—Heh, okay.”

            And, just like that, we retreat to the living room.
            Roswell is making a large breakfast with fruit and things, from what I can tell from my space on the sofa next to Gulcasa.
            I allow myself to doze quietly at Gulcasa’s side as Roswell and Yggdra quietly discuss things like ingredients and specific instructions for cooking.
            …At one point, I think I actually hear Roswell quietly veto the inclusion of strawberries into the main dish, although he says that he will put them on a plate with sugar for her.
            This must be Roswell’s particular brand of diplomacy.
            He has a plain personality, but he’s also certainly gentle and good at smoothing things over.
            Most likely, he grew up surrounded by pushy people.
            He has his pride as a magus and as a healer, though, which I can see peeping out at times when he’s in charge of things.
            …A childlike personality like that is easy to manipulate, and also means that he is likely trustworthy for now.
            And, if nothing else, it’s a definite asset when dealing with two people as hard-headed as my Gulcasa and his Yggdra.
            …It would definitely make Gulcasa upset were I to mention this straight-on, but there are many ways in which he and she are similar. Sheer stubbornness is one of those ways.
            At least in Gulcasa’s case, I wouldn’t say that he’s utterly inflexible, but rather that it’s a matter of his short temper and their long-standing fight.
            Ordinarily Gulcasa cools down from grudges and the like very quickly, but in a case like his feud with Yggdra he’s got so much to hold against her and her personality is too similar to his, so as long as he senses aggression or believes that it’s there he won’t back down.
            In her case it’s either the same or it’s straight-out inflexibility. It’s certainly true that my own position might be considered a bias, but I’ll hold fast to the fact that the one who was originally in the wrong was her anyway.

            “—”
            At any rate.
            I am able to sit at Gulcasa’s side for now, and that’s enough for me.
            I close my eyes and rest against him.
            …Perhaps because of last night, it’s easier to casually bring our bodies together, and not just in the sense that I’m certainly more mobile and more limber.
            It’s that a sense of warmth and connection still remains.
            Gulcasa appears to feel the same way, as he shifts his body so that we’re facing each other.
            His chest is warm when I lean into it, and the light circle of his arms around me is so relaxing that I can’t help but fear that I’m dreaming.
            The autumn bonfire smell of his hair is stronger today than usual.
            …He’s probably been doing something stupid like using his powers to dry it, because he’s an idiot with no sense of self-preservation.
            Although, honestly—even though there are definitely problems with the way that he behaves on a daily basis, the same traits of his that frustrate me are what make him so endearing.
            …In the end, I don’t believe it’s a bad thing to be self-sacrificing as long as you have someone to hold you back. It’s simply frustrating for the one who has to hold you back, because combating a person’s basic nature is what I’m sure they mean by “trying to herd cats”.

            But.
            If more people only had the same capacity to love and forgive as Gulcasa, then surely this world and every other would have been ravaged by far less war.
            …It’s a bit sad.
            That he came to answer my call is proof that he was venerated enough to become a higher existence in the minds of humans.
            But while venerating him, they have still failed to learn what they should have from his life and his death.

            Gulcasa holds me, and my body that’s so heavy with knots of unprocessed prana feels light.
            His warm, rough, kind hands soothe the irritation of the marks engraved and hidden under my skin.
            As long as we’re together, I can believe that there’s still a chance to free myself from the fate imposed upon me.
            …As long as he doesn’t let go of me.

            “—Everything’s ready.”
            In the end, the air is broken in a quiet way by Roswell’s announcement.
            Gulcasa helps me to the table, and we eat in silence.
            …Finally, we’re able to conclude a meal without Gulcasa and Yggdra getting into a petty argument.
            The food itself is at least palatable, though I’m not actually able to finish everything.

            “And, as a treat because Nessiah’s doing better—”
            Roswell smiles and puts an extra plate on the table.
            What covers it is, I believe, an arrangement of traditional sweets from this country.

            Even without looking, I can sense the way that Gulcasa sits up beside me.
            His eyes glisten with piqued interest as he regards the Japanese sweets.

            “—These are made with red bean paste, right?”
            Even Yggdra is looking at them curiously.
            …It’s a difficult battle not to laugh at their similar reactions, but luckily Roswell sits down on my other side and gestures for me to lift my injured foot, providing me with a distraction.

            “From what I hear, that’s the case.”
            Roswell answers her while resting my ankle in his lap, running his fingertips over the bones and prodding gently.
            The swelling has almost disappeared, and there’s not much pain even when he presses down firmly, so I suppose his work from yesterday has already mostly taken care of the injury.
            “The kinds of food that you used to enjoy, and the things that I grew up with, are more along the lines of European sweets; Japanese ones are quite different.”
            Gulcasa picks up one of the small buns to sample it.

            “—Hm, it’s certainly sweet if nothing else.”
            Yggdra remarks upon biting into her own.

            “…Yeah.
            “I never learned to make sweets with red bean paste, but we did have this kind of food back when I was a kid.
            “—I was never a huge fan, but friends of mine liked them, so it’s nostalgic.”
            Gulcasa says so with powdered sugar on his fingers.

            “—”
            Yggdra looks at him.
            There’s a kind of wonder on her face, and this may be the first time she’s stared at him without any open hostility involved.
            …Gulcasa’s words hold a great tenderness and an even greater melancholy, hidden behind a thin façade of matter-of-factness.
            He can’t help but be like this.

            So on impulse, I reach out to touch his wrist, drawing it in towards me.
            While Gulcasa watches me with wide eyes, I bring his hand up to my lips and press a kiss into his palm.
            The skin is heavy with calluses, but it’s different from any other hand that’s ever held a weapon.
            …There’s a tactile kindness in every fiber of his being.

            “—Nessiah.”
            His face has gone red.
            …It’s cute, so I lick his fingertip lightly before releasing him.
            The flavor of the powdered sugar is almost overpoweringly sweet against the taste of Gulcasa’s skin.
            He jumps slightly at the sensation, but doesn’t attempt to pull away.
            …All he does is tuck his chin in slightly as his blush spreads to the tips of his ears.

            Even so—he smiles.
            “What’s this about all of a sudden?”
            And he responds in a coy tone while reaching out to touch my face.

            “…Hmm, if you press me for a reason I’ll just be troubled for how to answer.
            “I felt like doing it, so I did it. That should be enough.”

            Gulcasa laughs.
            It’s a gentle sound.
            “There’s really no helping you.”

            He turns.
            He turns to face me so that I don’t have to contort my body so much, and leans in to cover my mouth with his.
            The kiss tastes like old-fashioned sweet mochi.

            “—”
            When Gulcasa pulls back from me, Yggdra is still staring at us.
            The princess wears a conflicted-looking expression as she watches us warily.

            “If you’ve got something to say, then say it.”
            Gulcasa raises his eyebrows and remarks this in a flat tone, as if insinuating with all his might that he’ll answer if and when she picks a fight.

            “…Sigh.”
            She points to the plate.
            “If you’ve decided that now is the time for cuddling, that’s lovely for you, but that means I can have all of these, correct?”

            Gulcasa wrinkles his nose and makes a disparaging noise.
            “—Yeah, dream on.”

            …And so unusually, mealtime is completed in peace without any intervention from me or from Roswell.
            While the two of them bicker over the food with a bit less venom than usual, Roswell finishes healing my ankle, cautioning me not to run for another twenty-four hours so as not to bruise the muscles.
            I just sit against Gulcasa’s warmth and enjoy the comfortable feel of the quiet house at noon.

            After that.
            Roswell announces that he and the princess will be leaving for a shopping trip.

            “—I’ll give you a list of things to go buy since it’s my turn to cook again later, but I’m going to stay here—”

            Gulcasa said that to them.
            …And he did write up a list and make sure that Roswell had it and knew where to buy everything.
            But immediately afterward, he returned to my side.

            “—”
            “—”
            The silence is quite pleasant.
            There’s no one in the house but us, so we sit on the sofa without bothering to restrain ourselves from holding each other.
            I position myself lightly on Gulcasa’s lap, sitting sideways so that I can hold him with both arms.
            The sweet scent of woodsmoke that hangs about his hair is heavy and alluring.
            His arms that support me lightly are intensely warm, and his body that’s pressed up against mine is hotter than usual.
            It’s not that he’s aroused, at least not yet; I would be able to tell that given where I’m sitting, after all. It’s more that there’s just a receptive atmosphere in the house that’s as good as ours for this afternoon.

            Gulcasa closes his eyes and breathes out, holding me with a tranquil expression.
            …Even though there have been a number of relaxed moments between us since his summoning, it always feels as though we have to steal them, or that there’s a time limit on what we are able to have for ourselves.
            Right now, Gulcasa seems more relaxed than usual.
            …Roswell seems under the impression that the two of us can just be sheltered here without any further interaction with the war, and perhaps that impression is catching from what I can glean in my Servant’s countenance.
            But I know better.
            We can take a few days to rest, but we’ll need to be active again soon.
            Just holding on until the war ends by itself isn’t an option for me.
            That’s not just my pride saying so, as sooner or later the strongest enemy will bring the fight to us—probably last, given that man’s hubris.
            Thinking about it makes my body want to tremble with hatred and fear, but because Gulcasa is holding me I suppress it.
            His warmth is a comfort, but I also don’t want to worry him with such things at a time like this when all there is to the world is the two of us.

            “—”
            I lean up and place a hand to his cheek.
            I draw his face down toward me and kiss him.

            “—Mm.”
            Gulcasa tastes me thoroughly and without restraint.
            I can feel my consciousness getting a bit hazy at the sensation.
            My muscles loosen, and my body relaxes.
            …I can feel my temperature rising slowly.
            Perhaps I’m getting re-accustomed to being touched and held tenderly, but I feel neither embarrassment nor any desire to stifle the quiet sounds and moans that rise up out of my throat at the pleasant sensation of the kiss.
            Due to our closeness, I can sense Gulcasa’s muscles vibrating slightly.
            …He’s probably on the verge of getting excited and trying to tone his own reactions down.

            When he pulls away, his eyes are unfocused.
            …His lips are flushed slightly from the long kiss, and his breathing is disordered.
            I can tell that I’m breathing a bit more deeply than usual, and my own lips are pounding with blood and even feel slightly swollen.
            I want to pull him right back down again.
            It feels pleasant, and beyond that the closer together we are, the safer I feel.
            There’s a craving inside me for that kind of feeling, a sensation I haven’t experienced for hundreds of years.

            “—Nessiah.”
            Gulcasa says my name in a dazed-sounding tone.
            I lift my hands up and stroke my fingertips over the contours of his face.
            …Everything about his countenance is very dear to me.
            The hard lines of his cheekbones and the bridge of his nose, the skin of his cheeks that turns red under my touch, the swept-back points to his ears that are sensitive enough to make him tremble weakly when I brush against them teasingly.
            His lips are soft.
            I hook the fingers of my right hand behind the nape of his neck and pull him back down, confirming it against my own.
            They’re soft.
            Gulcasa shudders and makes something like a pitched whine against my mouth.
            …His body is hot and smells of fire.
            His chest rises and falls like a bellows, and he has all the heat of a forge, of a great conflagration.
            He fidgets underneath me, but that’s not enough to hide the aroused state he’s in.

            This time when I release him, he’s breathing shallowly.
            Gulcasa’s body shudders and protests our separation.
            His pupils are wide and his eyes are only about half-open.
            “…Nessiah.”
            He leans down to kiss the base of my throat.
            He lingers there, lightly moving the tip of his tongue against my skin and nipping very softly.
            “Nn—ah.”
            How should I put this—he’s troublingly skilled at judging my physical sensitivity.
            Like now, embracing me tightly or roughly and actually kissing my skin actively or biting it would be a bit painful because I’m not aroused enough for that to feel good yet.
            There’s a certain point past which anything Gulcasa might do to me would feel good enough to white out my mind, but it would take quite a bit more involved attention for me to reach it. Generally we would already need to be in the midst of making love for me to feel that way, and if he were to be just a bit too rough now it wouldn’t just hurt—it would be frightening, and most likely my instincts would take over and I’d push him away automatically.
            That in turn would ruin the mood so completely that we wouldn’t be able to continue, and likely the whole rest of the day would be awkward.
            In the worst case scenario, it would be as bad as if I were to carelessly pull Gulcasa’s hair, and I might panic.

            My body’s natural sensitivity—my senses that are much finer than a normal human’s work against me here, and with the things that I’ve been unfortunate enough to experience in my life, it makes intimacy a bit of a touch-and-go situation.
            …At least, that’s how it would ordinarily be.
            But for whatever reason, it’s different with Gulcasa.
            …It seems he’s always been able to tell by instinct that he and I are similar in that respect, and so he has always been very tender in moments like this.
            I can’t imagine the kind of fine control over his considerable strength it must take, but despite his own arousal he’s never misjudged himself, so it may even be instinctive by now.

            Gulcasa kisses along the line of my throat all the way up to the base of my jaw, applying his teeth just lightly enough to leave marks.
            My breathing is ragged, and I hold on to him tightly.
            …If this is a game between us, then he’s more than matched me for provoking him before.
            The sensation of my blood thumping throughout my body irritates my own arousal, and there’s a desire for release building up within me, if faintly.

            “—There’s oil in the kitchen, Nessiah—”
            And that’s close, so there isn’t even any need to really wait and ruin the moment, seems to be what Gulcasa is suggesting with that heated murmur.
            But he’s going to have to try much harder than that.

            “We’ll make a mess of the nice furniture.
            “—I think you can be patient enough for tonight, when there’ll be no need to change locations awkwardly, don’t you?”

            Even so, I put my hands on Gulcasa’s shoulders and shift my body.
            Rather than sitting sideways on his lap with my feet off to one side, I lift my body up and swing one leg over so that I am straddling his waist.
            Our bodies press together intensely.
            …He’s hot against me, and I can feel Gulcasa’s breath and his heartbeat quicken as he realizes my own aroused state.
            I put strength into my hips and thighs to keep my body from rocking against his, and lean in to kiss him again.

            We exchange numerous heated kisses and embraces here.
            His temperature and my own have soared, and surely the room itself is far warmer than it was before.
            …I can be honest with myself.
            I want to take him right here, in this moment.
            But it’s also true that it would be impractical and messy, causing cleanup to be even more of a hassle than it normally would be.
            …And besides.
            Playing around like this is in itself not a bad thing to do.

            We continue to hold each other, draw out our intimacy so that the mild arousal we experience isn’t pushed over into the realm of urgency, and stop to simply breathe whenever it feels like things might go too far.
            The promise of tonight is enough to keep our teasing each other from evolving into anything else.
            When it finally gets to be too much, I simply remove myself from Gulcasa’s lap to give us both the chance to get up, stretch out, and cool off.
            I wander around to take the chance to relieve my body of its tension without losing face, during which time Gulcasa probably does much the same.
            …And, when I return to the living room, he’s coming down the stairs and nods to me that he’s already commandeered supplies for later.

            Our allies still aren’t back yet, so we relocate to the kitchen in order to make tea.
            We orbit each other, keep in contact, and cuddle with each other without either shame or restraint.
            The sun passes through the afternoon sky, slow and gentle, a quiet moment returned to us out of a distant past.

 

            “—They certainly are late.”
            Gulcasa sighs.
            “If they stay out for much longer, the sun will set.”
            …I certainly think so as well.
            It’s nearly six o’clock, and if the sun had already set I would expect that Roswell had been attacked.
            …I would know if they or if any other Servant had been defeated, of course, but I can’t sense an intense magical battle from this far away.

            Gulcasa and I sit at the table.
            It should still be calm, but there’s a rising uneasiness in the air.
            “—”

            And.
            There’s a creeping discomfort in my shoulder along the Command Spell.

            “—”
            I look at Gulcasa.
            He’s gazing towards the door with a kind of wariness.
            …I can’t tell whether or not this is Roswell coming back.
            Ally or enemy, the reaction of the Command Spell should be the same.
            And Servants are unfortunately all just lumps of prana to me, and I cannot tell the difference between their presence very well at a distance.
            Out of all of them, only Gulcasa is special.

            “—Nessiah.
            “What are we going to do?”
            “—”
            If it’s Roswell, he’ll come in without any assistance.
            If it’s an enemy, they will either leave or break the boundary field of the mansion in order to enter, and this is no place to fight.

            “…We should go out to meet them.
            “Gulcasa, go ahead.
            “—I’ll stay behind you. This is far enough away from other houses and shielded, so if there’s a battle it should happen in the yard rather than in closed quarters like this.”

            He nods once.
            And we both stand up, tense.

            …With Gulcasa as wary as I am, I can’t imagine that this is anything but an uninvited guest.
            So, he heads to the front door and I shadow his movements.
            “—”
            Of course, Gulcasa reaches the window before me.
            He glares from outside the visible range of someone outside looking in, and then turns to me and shakes his head.

            “—I don’t see anyone.
            “It’s probably the enemy.”
            …Well, if someone has come here looking for a battle with Roswell, we can certainly give them a surprise.
            “The Master is with them, so it’s probably not Caster there.”
            And so, by process of elimination, that leaves either Lancer or Avenger as the opponent before us.
            …I’d expect Lancer to be the bigger threat here, with the pair of magi supporting him and his power level.
            Avenger is not a weak Servant by any means, but her Master will hold her back.
            Therefore, we should prepare for this to be an assault from Lancer and if it’s Avenger instead we’ve gotten lucky.
            …Of course it’s not going to be pleasant to face down a Servant we can empathize with, but we promised her a fair battle.

            Still.
            “—Damn, we should have thought ahead for some method to contact Roswell in case something like this happened.”
            I complain quietly at my own lack of foresight.

            “It can’t be helped.
            “If we’d had more time to talk about strategy I’m sure it would have come up, but with the condition you’ve been in it’s not like we could have held strategy meetings and such every day to get everyone in sync.
            “—Besides, the plan had been for us to stay here in hiding for as long as we could, so I doubt that anyone was really counting the two of us as members of the fighting force.”

            I breathe out.
            Everything always goes to pieces in the end if I’m not directing the chessboard by myself.
            I know this all too well, so I should have made more of a conscious effort to keep control of things.
            But now is not the time for regrets.
            “…Even in the worst case scenario, Roswell should be coming back soon.
            “And in that case, we can just team up and expel the intruders together.
            “Until then, though, don’t worry about holding back as I have more than enough prana to spare for anything you might use up. The only thing I’d ask you to keep in reserve is that Noble Phantasm, since it would leave you defenseless if there were to be another battle.”

            Gulcasa nods.
            “—I can finish this with Prominence.
            “Now then, we’ll have to go.”

            And.
            The door opens in the next moment, and Gulcasa explodes out into the front yard like a flame shot from the mouth of a cannon.

            There.
            Within the barrier that closes this space off from the eyes of civilians, a knight in black catches the blow on her sword like a dance.
            Sparks scatter throughout the air like leaves in autumn as the scythe and the sword dance in a waltz, and Gulcasa in his armor twists and fights in order to keep the enemy from coming any further.
            Avenger’s expression is blank and focused.
            Showing none of the excitement or the viciousness of our previous battle, she attacks Gulcasa in quick slashes without wasted movement as if not having any fun at all.
            “—”
            I can hear Gulcasa exhale as he drags his blade through the air towards her body.

            Is it because we’ve gotten to know each other better, or is there some other reason?
            …With Avenger’s personality, I can’t simply mark down her change in demeanor to reluctance to do battle, as it was in combat that she seemed the most lively before.
            “—”
            But more importantly.
            It may be all right to put her on the back burners and leave her to Gulcasa if I can deal with her Master.

            The witch stands at the gates.
            She does not spare a glance for the battle of our Servants and looks straight at me.
            Something about her stare—makes me feel uneasy.

            But.
            As Gulcasa continues to strike for Avenger, driving her back bit by bit, I descend the front steps to the house with purpose.

            Slowly.
            I raise my hand and prepare my own body to cast lightning.
            …Try not to run, huh.
            Unfortunately, it appears that you’ll have to be looking after me again tonight, Roswell—

 

            At the moment that I spring off the bottom step.
            Three things happen in such rapid succession that I cannot react in time.

            First.
            Call it karma for disobeying my doctor’s orders, but at the second step where my injured foot should be striking against the ground to propel me forward—
            My weak ankle wobbles and bends, and I almost fall.
            My voice escapes, and the rings of power that had been fastened about the joints of each of my fingers come unwoven, causing the bolts of energy prepared in my hand to go wild and destroy the fence.

            Second.
            In the exact same moment, Gulcasa senses danger to me and falters slightly—in conjunction with Avenger lunging forward to attack.
            “Kh—!”
            The ground tears under Gulcasa’s armored feet, and he makes furrows in the grass as Avenger’s blow drives him back past me to crash into the wall.
            Even though he pulls his body back upright in the next moment and runs forward again, Avenger has run forward to close the gap.
            This means that when the two of them clash like cogs getting caught backwards, the great sound of metal from between them comes from significantly behind me.

            …And third.
            …Yellma, Avenger’s Master, runs lightly into the yard—two strong paces, long enough to close the distance between us.

            Before I can maintain my balance.
            Hands like spiders seize my wrists, and my body is wrenched around so that my back is pressed against the woman’s chest.
            “—Kh—a, u—”

            My ankle buckles underneath me, the strained tendon protesting.
            My entire leg is shaking and cannot bear my weight.
            …She shifts my wrists into the grip of the same hand, and before I can drop all of my weight and fall to the earth to make my body harder for her to manipulate, her hand winds around my throat.
            Her fingers strangle me like spiders, and my vision warps.
            …Her long nails appear to have been reinforced with metal, and nick tenderly into the skin of my neck like razors.

            “—”
            All I can do is gasp for air, but my throat is pricked numerous times.
            I can’t help my body’s instinctive reaction to the pain I’m already in and my ankle’s demand for oxygen so that it might repair itself, and my panting like a seizure increases.
            …The adrenaline that’s dulling out the pain of my unresponsive ankle does nothing to help the sharp cuts along my throat, and they sting mindlessly.

            “Nessiah—”
            …Distantly.
            I can hear Gulcasa’s scream like the roar of a beast.

            “—Careful, now.”
            Avenger’s Master laughs.
            “If you get too excited, you’ll be forfeiting your Master’s life, you know—?
            “Even if it’s just a corpse, I can still make do quite easily.”

            I feel cold.
            —I feel cold at the implication of her words.

            This was a deliberate attack not to separate me from Gulcasa so that we would be easy to kill, but to get us apart so that she could capture me.
            …I’m an enemy Master.
            If that is the only thing that is known about my role in this war, then such actions as these are absurd.
            …Which means.
            The only logical explanation is that she knows the truth, and is not interested in “me”, but the “contents” of my body.

            “Of course, neither of us wants that.
            “—Certainly you’ll vanish from the world if you don’t have a Master, and I’d rather keep the vessel alive than worry about making emergency transplants.”
            She speaks merrily while strangling me.
            …It hurts, and I need air, or else the pain will get even worse.

            “Avenger, we’re leaving since we have what we need.
            “—If he comes after us like a fool, then kill him.”

            Obeying the orders of her Master, Avenger backs away from Gulcasa.
            My vision is fading.
            …But I can still tell from her hazy silhouette that she is postured to attack at any time.

            “—Nessiah—”
            But Gulcasa is heedless of such things.
            His eyes are a beacon fastened directly onto me, and I am sure that he can see nothing else.
            Oblivious to the danger that he’s in, he bends as if preparing to lunge at me.
            …I know.
            I don’t even need to be a true prophet to know, I can see the certain future burned into my eyelids even if I close them.
            He will run forward and the arc of Avenger’s sword will cut into his neck.

            “—No!!
            “—Don’t come—stay where you are!”

 

            I put all my remaining breath into the scream.

            …Oh.
            My shoulder—the marks of absolute obedience burn, as though the brand of our contract is being seared into my flesh anew.
            A sharp crack rings through the air, assaulting my ears.
            “—”
            I hear Gulcasa choke, and the protests of his armor as he is held in place by the Command Spell.

            There is no answering song of a sword’s edge slicing the air.
            …So even if I can’t see it, I know that Avenger will not attack as long as Gulcasa doesn’t rush at her.

 

            …But that’s it.
            My vision’s already gone.
            The strength in my limbs is following it rapidly, and I don’t have the breath to speak.
            …The problem about my power is that without my voice or at least a hand free, it’s useless.
            My consciousness is growing faint.
            But—she won’t kill me.
            Even if she kills me, that’s not so bad.

            Gulcasa—
            As long as he’s alive, I still—

            My breath cuts out and I fall.

 

(interlude 10-2)

            “Damn it—”

            There’s a great crack of wood.

            It’s Roswell Branthèse’s instinct to flinch, but he summons up all the fortitude he has and remains still.

            It’s been about half an hour since the time that he and his Servant returned home from shopping to find the yard in disarray, Nessiah gone, and Berserker screaming until he vomited blood with the effort to break free of the Command Spell that kept him there.
            …The boundary field has been replaced and strengthened, and Roswell took the time to heal all of Berserker’s self-inflicted wounds.
            Compared to the time that that Servant was attacking himself mindlessly from rage and self-blame, the way he is raging about the house attacking the walls and the furniture makes him seem calm.

            It’s not as though he can’t understand.
            …The thing that Berserker was determined to protect above all else was taken away from him, and Nessiah forced him to stay here rather than allowing him to attempt a rescue.
            Of course, he understands those feelings even though he fully acknowledges that Nessiah’s actions were probably correct.

            Berserker punches the walls so hard that the plaster cracks.
            His knuckles are in pieces, his hands ruined with bruises and blood.
            It will take a great deal of energy to take care of.
            …But because it is preferable to the way that that Servant had thrown himself into the walls, run his head and shoulders into them as if trying to kill himself—
            Because his eyes are no longer empty, and the air around his body no longer sizzles as though the world is going to erupt into a great conflagration—
            Roswell can remain calm watching the display that Berserker is making, and not panic over the mess.

            “Damn it, damn it—”

            Berserker does not stop.
            He is a Servant, and so even though an ordinary person would no longer be able to continue their rampage after a short while, he has been raging for half an hour.
            His body has lost a great amount of energy, and his punches towards the walls are weak, signaling that he will simply collapse in exhaustion soon.
            …It’s not that he’s in danger of running out of prana, but that his body is after all still bound by some of the restraints a human’s is.
            The nerves and flesh and bones that make up Berserker’s body can only sustain so much uncontrolled wrath without the reinforcement of his Master.

            Nessiah isn’t here.
            Berserker’s body isn’t warped into invincibility by Mad Enhancement.
            Right now—

            …Right now he’s physically and emotionally at his limit.

            Even so, there’s nothing that Roswell can do.
            …He is only human, and a human cannot stop a rampaging Servant, so he must wait for Berserker to calm down before doing anything.

 

            “Damn it—”

            Finally.
            Berserker’s body starts to sag, swaying drunkenly as he collapses.
            He breathes heavily.
            His eyes are wild and see nothing but his own failures.
            …And, at that moment—

            “—”
            Yggdra crouches down beside the kneeling form of her sworn enemy,
            and she firmly wraps her arms around his body.

            She doesn’t say anything.
            She closes her eyes with an intense and inscrutable expression.
            …All that Roswell knows is that the emotion she’s feeling now is neither pity nor sadness.
            She holds fast to Berserker’s still-straining body, and closes her eyes.

            …Berserker screams.
            Roswell would never be able to make a sound like that.
            He’s been raised to be proper for too many years, and has been brought up to restrain his emotions and maintain his dignity.
            …Berserker doesn’t care about anything like that, and roars.
            Like a dragon with its heart pierced, he bares his fangs and screams so loudly that even if Roswell clapped both hands fast to his ears he wouldn’t be able to escape the noise.
            The Servant’s handsome face is a mess of blood and tears.
            Strings of saliva and bile from the number of times he vomited still defile his crushed armor.
            His talons bite into Yggdra’s back.
            He’s clinging to her mindlessly.

            His crying voice is a scream.
            Even once his voice dies because his vocal cords are too worn to produce sound and he collapses to breathe raggedly, the noise echoes on and on.

            At last.
            With Berserker sagged and simply staring blankly into the floor, supported only by Yggdra holding him up, Roswell kneels down in the dust and casts a healing on Berserker’s torn and broken hands.

            “—I’m going to clean up.”
            He announces so quietly.
            It would be unholy to dispel the traces of that proud voice by speaking over them.

            “Yggdra.
            “…Help him.”
            “Of course.”
            She just nods, and doesn’t release her grip.

            “—Gulcasa.”
            Berserker’s gaze is dim.
            It’s probably this man’s way to simply give in to such emotions rather than bottle them up, as he appears to have worn himself out quite thoroughly by now.
            But.
            “…I’m going to clean things up a bit, and then—
            “I don’t have the same level of skill, but we’re going to make a plan.
            “We’re going to get Nessiah back, without fail.”

            Berserker looks up.
            His eyes are like coals in his ravaged face.
            —But still, he responds to Roswell’s words readily.

            Maybe it’s because his voice is already broken.
            But all he does is nod.
            With grim and deadened eyes, covered in blood and tears, disheveled from rampaging around in frenzied desperation—
            The crimson demon nods royally, with all the weight and gravity befitting of an emperor.

(10-2 interlude out.)

Chapter Text

(interlude 11-1)

            This is the story of the one I love.

            …In the end he’d just made a mistake.
            Overall that’s not really such a big deal, to make one error, but the world isn’t as forgiving as that—to just ignore someone’s weakness.
            That is the injustice of the society of mortals.

            He made a mistake.
            …I don’t mean his resistance against the reason he was born, his exercising the right to choose his own destiny that he’d never actually been given.
            I don’t mean the way that he chose to fight back against the almighty forces of the gods, either. His falling into the endless cycle of harm wasn’t something that could be helped.
            …He’d been afraid, and there’s a clear culprit to point your finger at in that case.

            No.
            …He made a mistake, and that was hesitating.
            For a brief time, the road in front of him forked.
            There was the path he’d already set out on, the way towards getting revenge for the wrongs done to him and destroying everything he had to fear.
            And there was a new path there, where he might be able to set his burdens down and be happy for a while.

            I think it’s natural.
            He’d fought for the same goal for lifetimes, and so it’s only normal that he was unsure at the prospect of starting up a new way of life.
            If he jumped towards the path of happiness, there wouldn’t be any guarantees. He wouldn’t be able to pursue his revenge anymore, and wouldn’t be able to fight his fears. On top of that, there was no guarantee that the dream of peace would last.
            But at the same time, even if it was a fleeting dream that would only last for a few heartbeats compared to his thousand years of life—that kind of peace and warm environment wasn’t anything he’d ever been allowed to even glimpse, and he didn’t want to let it go.

            In the end he couldn’t decide.
            …It’s a simple mistake and I don’t think anyone could blame him for it.
            But his indecision—

            When he woke up from that death on the far side of the bridge, everyone was already gone.
            Our war was like a bonfire that only had enough fuel to last a night, and each of our individual fires had burned out since long before he was able to awaken.

            He blamed himself.
            …Again, I don’t think that’s anything you could tell him was wrong or unnatural.
            But after that, he simply allowed himself to fall deeper and deeper, letting go of even his original goal in the despair that he felt.

 

            And eventually.
            What he’d been fearing most finally came to pass.

            I don’t know how that man found him, but there was a day when agents of the heavens came for him.
            …He was captured and brought back without the will to fight, and even the remains of his original form were excavated.
            It was too convenient for that man, who was one of the finest magi of that world.
            Here was a specimen that would inevitably reincarnate no matter how many times he was broken, and by his own finely woven and innate magecraft rather than any expense by the magus himself.

            He descended into days like a nightmare.
            Decades and centuries of treatment so appalling that I want to avert my eyes and scream out against it.
            He was used as that person’s toy, abandoned, and then toyed with again in an endless cycle.

            …It’s a miracle that he didn’t just go crazy.
            But at the same time, it would’ve been more merciful if he had.
            If his mind had just cracked with a big sound of breaking, then maybe he wouldn’t have had to go through even that much pain.

            …Or perhaps the real miracle,
            is the fact that he was even willing to let me ever touch him again—

            Finally.
            “—There’s a use to which I can put you, at last.”
            The man said that like he was reading a soliloquy.

            This is a story of the one I love.
            …He came to stand here today after crawling through a hell so deep that I can’t even imagine it.
            …And so.
            The question I must ask myself, now that I know—

                        —is what I can do, to help him the rest of the way—

(11-1 interlude out.)

            “—Nn.”
            Something is, wrong—

            Cold.
            It’s cold.
            I’m cold.

            …When I open my eyes.
            I’m in a place that I don’t recognize at all.

            No matter where I look, there’s nothing but darkness and cold tile.
            My body feels numb, and my head is still fogged so that my situation is difficult to understand.
            All I know is that this is not the shack, nor is it anywhere in Roswell’s house—and that my body is freezing, to the point where I cannot even move.

            …As my senses slowly reorganize themselves.
            I realize that I am held upright with no support, my limbs stretched out in the position of a crucifix.
            As my heart beats.
            So do the magical diagrams underneath my skin, the complicated network of false nerves that configure the purpose of this body.
            And—so do the four knotted lumps of prana inside me.

            I can’t feel anything, but—my toes and my fingertips are throbbing lightly.
            My body urges me to sleep.
            My body urges my consciousness to shut off so that “nature” can take its course.

            …But.
            This isn’t the right place.
            I can feel the ley line beating in time with my body, but it appears that that witch didn’t know enough to take me to the proper point of offering.

            …So, it won’t open by itself.

            But the pulsation is so strong that I can’t think well.
            Like a headache all throughout my body.
            All that I can recognize is the cold and the pulse, and it’s a wonder that I can even maintain my sense of self in this place.

            …But.

            “—You can’t hide from me that you’re awake, little princess.”
            A disgusting, familiar voice.
            When I open my eyes.

            The witch with white hair—Yellma is standing before me, balancing her closed fan on her shoulder with a smug expression.

            “Now that you’ve been so kind as to join us, I’d like to ask a little favor of you.
            “—Open it.”

            There’s—no use in playing dumb at this point.
            Nor is there any point in pretending not to be conscious.

            “That’s quite the order.
            “—Unfortunately, even though you seem somewhat aware of what you’re asking, it’s useless. This isn’t the correct location, and it would be quite far from complete with only four Servants defeated.”

            “Don’t think that you can fool me with that kind of talk.”
            She folds her arms.
            She still seems quite calm.

            “—I see.
            “Yes, certainly you have no reason to heed my warnings that your plan is unwise; after all, you clearly must have the same capacity to sense the contents of the Grail as I, and you must have a backup prepared in case something goes very wrong due to our being in the wrong place.
            “By all means, continue.”

            She curls her lip.

            “—Talkative, aren’t we?
            “There’s not much that could convince me to listen to you, although I admit that your pleas to survive are taking a pretty amusing form.”
            “Please.
            “—I wouldn’t mind much, I suppose; the strain on my body would surely lessen if I were to entrust the contents thus far to you.
            “But this is my body, and so I know. Four Servants isn’t nearly enough to get you anywhere near Akasha, nor is it sufficient to gather enough prana to work whatever wish you have.
            “Your strategy to capture me wasn’t bad by any means, but your timing needs work.”

            Yellma still seems unconcerned.
            “—Yes, I thought that you might argue something like that.
            “But do you really think that I would come so unprepared and ignorant when I knew enough to target you specifically?
            “Four Servants may not be enough, but when you open it for me, you’ll have six.”

            “—Hmph.
            “I don’t suppose you’re monitoring other Servants’ battles at a time like this?”

            “—Surely not.
            “Avenger.”

            …Just when I thought I was sensing suppressed intent to kill, she emerges out of the shadows.
            Apparently being this cold is doing a number on my senses in more ways than one, if I was unable to immediately sense the Master or the Servant.

            “It’s that six Servants will be dead soon.”
            Yellma says so in an unconcerned tone.

            “—”
            A sharp intake of breath from where Avenger stands.
            The black knight’s eyes narrow.
            “Don’t tell me, you—”

            But.
            Yellma simply holds up her hand.
            “You shouldn’t dare speak to me in that tone.
            “You’re my puppet, remember?
            “—Of course I’d rather maintain you for as long as I can for convenience’s sake, but if you raise your weapon to me I’ll be able to have you stab yourself before you can even reach me.”

            She announces this with a sense of pleasure.
            …From the darkness, a sound of teeth being gritted.

            “—No.
            “First, before you open the Grail for me—I think I’ll have you use up those remaining Command Spells to force your Servant into suicide.”

            …Oh.
            It hurts.

            “Surely you must be joking.”
            But.
            I have to maintain as much calm as possible.
            “You’ll have to try quite a lot harder than that to force me into doing such a thing.
            “While the guarantees I can make from this position are mostly on how well the Grail will or won’t function, I can certainly tell you this much.
            “—You will not get to him through me. You certainly will not be able to make me kill him with just an order.”

            She sighs.
            Her shoulders slump slightly, but she smiles, and the curve of her lips is alive with wickedness.
            …Despite myself.
            My stomach clenches with nerves at the sight of that expression, which so resembles the face of that man.

            “—Then.
            “I suppose I’ll just have to force you to, won’t I?”

                        A switch—is flipped.

 

            “—kk”
            Something.
            A substance like invisible flaming tar invades my body through my Magic Circuit.

            The colors before my eyes all invert, like a photograph in negative.

            It’s nothing like a spell or anything that problematic.
            It’s just that alien prana is directly invading my body, not seeking storage, but rather like poison: A damaging substance deliberately inserted into my body to destroy it.
            But, I won’t be destroyed.
            …I’ve tasted death countless times, and so I know that this is nothing so harmful as to be fatal; the corrosion spreads only along the circuits of my body, my veins and nerves and the natural path of my Magic Circuit. It’s just “torture”.

            A sensation like my nails being ripped out, but all across my body.
            Stabbing sensation.
            Like the nails, in pieces, being driven back in.
            Fragments of bone. Stabbing sensation. Tetrachromatic hallucinations, ultraviolet spectrum that hurts my brain.
            I cannot grasp at the prana necessary to drive her spell out of my body.
            Ah. …That’s odd.
            Unless all but the necessary prana to sustain my body and the vessel were drained away, then there should not be any problem, but the circuit cannot connect

            static
            static
            static
            static
            static

            static

            it, hurts—
            it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts it hurts

            Optic fluid burning my face as my eye melts away.
            Needles branding into my hips.
            Eye. An eye.
            An eye opening along the cut in my flank.
            An eye opening across my sternum.
            Eyes splitting the skin as they open across every patch of skin.
            Perfect vision.
            Monochrome, crimson red vermillion.
            Hand reaching into my chest.
            The bars of my ribs prized back one by one.

            Meaningless spiraling patterns on my skin. Silver filigree. Spira mirabilis. So hot it feels like freezing. Feathers made of frost. Ice crystals underneath the epidermis. It hurts. Fingers of ice and frost around my throat. Strangling without deprivation of oxygen. It hurts. Invasion through the orifices. It hurts. Broken circuit. It hurts. Violation. Violation. A septacle of ice. Cup nestled into my pelvis. Cup filled with rotting lumps of flesh. It hurts. Expel them. It hurts. Abdomen splitting open. It hurts. Countertoxin. Spores blossoming into feathers. Amputated stump. Scar. Scar. Scar. Cold chain. Pounds of metal. Orichalcum. It hurts. Blindness. Damaged circuit. It hurts. It hurts.

 

            My sense   of time   collapses.
            I don’t know   if it’s been   one moment  or several hours.

            My throat is dry.
            My throat is dry, and I smell heavy sweat.
            It beads on my skin and courses to drip onto the faraway floor, and my senses are so violated that even that sensation registers as pain.

            “—”
            I force the breath out of my lungs and take in new oxygen.

            The witch in front of me is smiling.
            …Behind her.
            The knight all in black is observing with narrowed eyes.
            Blood is running from a small cut on her lower lip down her chin.
            The small chink in her control—somehow makes me want to cry from gratitude.

            “—Was that fun?”
            The sound of Yellma’s voice is exhausting to me.
            “I certainly do have to commend you for not screaming.”

            The sound of her shoes ringing on the tile hurts my ears.
            Cold fingers touch my chin and tilt it up.
            She forces me to stare into her eyes.

            “—Have I persuaded you yet?
            “My control is quite fine, you know; I’m not going to allow you to die.
            “If you want this to end, you can end it by yourself.”

            …Please.
            I close my eyes.
            It’s best not to incite her wrath, as I’d certainly like to come out of this without permanent damage to my body, but compared to what I’ve been through up until now this is child’s play.
            Certainly, I shudder to think what she might become under the tutelage of that man, but I will not be broken with this paltry degree of torture.

            “Hmm.”
            Her hands release me.
            “If you’re not willing yet, then let’s continue. I’ve been going easy, so I can keep this up all night and into tomorrow.”

            “—”
            I exhale.
            I breathe in.
            The air is rank with sweat, and the taste of metal in my mouth is disgusting.
            My senses are still slightly twisted, and the dank smell of this room is like splinters in my nasal passages.
            I can taste the muddy blackness.
            Still.
            Until the hallucinations start again, I should cherish the modicum of clarity that is still available to me—

            And.
            At that moment, there is a distant rumble.
            …Perhaps that’s not the best way of putting it, as it’s as much a feeling as it is a sound.
            A thrumming of the air against my hypersensitive skin, a distant cadence of galloping.
            Ahh.
            My heart and my memory recognize the sound before my conscious mind, and my tense body relaxes.
            I could weep.

            Heavy footfalls, a pace like running.
            …I know the gait.
            I almost smile with the warm sensation of not having to bide my time after all.
            He was with the others, and so I know that this isn’t the reckless charge that it might have been, had I allowed him to follow me immediately.

            —Thank goodness.
            I can endure torture if it doesn’t kill me, but because the pain and hallucinations make it extraordinarily difficult to think clearly, it’s quite difficult to come up with a plan in the meantime.

            “Tch.”
            Yellma turns halfway, so that her back is not to me.
            …She doesn’t need to worry.
            I can’t move, let alone struggle against whatever bonds she has me in, and my consciousness is feeble and thready.
            I’m certainly not much use in combat or anything right now.

            …Like an avenging angel out of a myth.
            Gulcasa, resplendent in his battle armor, alights upon the floor at the other end of the long low room.

            “Alights” may not be the best word, because his landing is heavy and he immediately sinks into a battle stance like a predatory animal.
            Leaning forward on the balls of his feet, he bristles.
            Bright colors, a flash of life in this cold dead scenery.
            His eyes burn, and he holds his Noble Phantasm with an oppressive presence.

            “—I’m here to take Nessiah back.”

            Only those words, and no more.

            “—Avenger.”
            Yellma addresses her Servant in a bored tone.
            “This will just be a repeat of before, you realize.
            “Take care of him, and don’t you bother to fight back, because I will kill your Master if I have to.”

            Avenger turns her back to her Master and steps forward.
            She holds her sword in her hand and walks with her heels making cold stark sounds in every step.
            As she raises her weapon—Gulcasa charges to meet her.

            Exchange of blows.
            Gulcasa slices at her, his scythe trailing fire that lights up the room so that I can see it.
            …We appear to be in an unadorned underground chamber.
            Perhaps a basement to a home or public building that is no longer in use.

            …Gulcasa is moving slower than usual.
            From this distance I can’t be completely sure whether it is deliberate or if he is still compensating for damages from the last battle.
            Avenger parries his blows easily.
            Her footwork is impeccable, even as Gulcasa’s greater range forces her to move much more than he does.

            Sparks scatter between them.
            An elegant dance.

            …That.
            Just that is enough for me to realize.

            My eyelids want to close.
            But I look at Yellma.
            …She does not seem to have battle sense, and furthermore she is looking at the fight smugly as if to prove that she is simply incapable of interpreting what she is seeing.

            Gulcasa continues to press on steadily, exchanging light blows with Avenger.
            She maneuvers easily out of the way of his strikes, deflects them, and though his slower speed means that there are definite gaps in his defenses she does not leap forward and attack them.

            “—That’s right.
            “Good, Avenger—go on and make a spectacle of this impudent Servant for me!”
            —How foolish can she be?
            The more they fight, the further back Gulcasa pushes Avenger.
            And furthermore, the weaving pattern of their exchanged blows may be concealed in a dancing rhythm, but their positions are subtly changing.

            A beautiful dance like a sparring match.
            Avenger leans in and deftly snakes through Gulcasa’s guard, dealing him a solid blow in the chest that knocks him back so that he sprawls onto his knees and his free hand.
            They are now across from each other, seven or eight feet apart, and Gulcasa has moved ninety degrees from his original position so that his back is to the wall at my right.
            Yellma’s cold laughter rings throughout the room and gives me a headache.

            “—Good.
            “Go ahead and finish him now, Avenger—”

            She jumps forward.
            At the same time—Gulcasa pushes himself up and grabs on to her arm.

            “Wha—”
            The voice of surprise comes from Yellma.
            As Gulcasa drags himself up and uses his momentum to push Avenger back towards the stairway through which he entered—yes, only Yellma is surprised.

            He shoves off the ground in the same movement he uses to push her back.
            He flies forward at full speed.
            —My Servant’s silver scythe flashes once.

            And.
            When I fall—Gulcasa catches my numb and exhausted body carefully in the crook of his arm, holding me tightly to his chest.

            “—”

            Yellma is speechless.
            Either with shock or with fury.

            “—Sorry it took so long.”
            Still surveying the enemy, Gulcasa apologizes to me in a quiet voice.
            …It takes most of my strength, but for him, I’m able to smile and shake my head.
            “It’s alright; save that for when we’re out of here.
            “—And… thank you for coming to help me.”

            It’s faint.
            But from my position, held uncomfortably to Gulcasa’s armored chest—I can see him smile slightly.

            He shifts me against his body.
            And he faces towards the exit with a purpose—

(interlude 11-2)

            “—”
            The magus narrows his eyes in the night.
            Beneath them—under the earth, the battle is probably already taking place.

            The sun has set on Miyama, and the air has filled with chill once again.
            It’s nearly spring, and during the day the world has become much more temperate, but the night air is enough to make him shudder.

            “—Five minutes to go.”
            Those were the terms of their agreement, and the plan.
            Roswell Branthèse breathes out and watches the cloud of steam rise and dissipate.

            …Saber, who is beside him, is still in spirit form and invisible.
            His Command Spell has not reacted to that of the woman hiding in this abandoned building, and so she too is hiding her presence so as not to give them away.

            “…Four minutes.”
            Hopefully Berserker will have kept his head.
            The allied Servant has been in something of a strange and obsessive mood ever since the events of yesterday, and his behavior more clearly reflects what Roswell saw of the man in his Servant’s memories.
            Rather than a warm and devoted person extremely similar to Saber right down to his demeanor—this is the driven warrior with something to protect.
            He’s a Servant, after all, not just an allied “human”.
            It’s not as though Roswell could forget such a fact, but that the reality seemed rather distant and dreamlike with Berserker and his Master confined to the house.

            The man he has always seen in his dreams of Saber’s memories was very reckless.
            Perhaps it’s just a blessing that they were able to come up with any plan at all instead of Berserker charging off on his own.
            That much, they owe to Nessiah’s Command Spell, which had remained in effect for long enough that Berserker exhausted himself emotionally and lost the will to run out without thinking.

            Two minutes left.
            Since Berserker will probably have overwhelmed the enemy by now if his idea worked out, it’s almost time to spring the trap and finish them for good.

            …There’s a faint reaction from the Command Spell.
            A stab of pain in the back of his hand.
            “—”

            Roswell turns.
            And, there at the end of the road—are illuminated two human silhouettes, and the shadow of something considerably more troublesome—

(11-2 interlude out.)

            “—”
            Even with my senses dulled from the long day, the hair on the back of my neck stands up at this oppressive atmosphere.

            Gulcasa holds me close against his armor, weapon in hand.
            His gaze does not waver from the direction of the enemy, and past them, the staircase that’s our best avenue of escape.
            Avenger is in the way, still holding her sword.
            Given that she cooperated with Gulcasa’s feigned battle so that I could be rescued, I don’t believe that she’d put up much resistance to our flight without being ordered.
            But then, this is Avenger, so there is nothing preventing her from having done so just in order to secure a more satisfactory battle, or out of spite for her Master.

            Yellma, in between us, clucks her tongue in frustration.
            Slowly, she backs up so that the distance between her and her Servant lessens.
            She refuses to present Avenger with her back, and keeps the Servant she abuses and mistrusts in her peripheral vision.

            “Hold on.”
            Gulcasa whispers so that only my ears can pick up his voice.
            “—You don’t need to fear anything.
            “I’ll protect you, so hold on to me and we’ll get out of here.”

            “—”
            I don’t have much strength left in this body.
            But I try to hold on to his side so as not to restrict his movements.

            “Tch.
            “All right then.
            “It’s a shame, but I suppose I’ll simply have to dismantle that vessel and find a new carrier.
            “Avenger—I order you upon the mark of my mastery, cut them down with your Noble Phantasm!”

            The air cracks and shatters under her words.
            Avenger’s sword lights up under her hands, and emits a vast typhoon of wind.
            The sword explodes.
            Energy so intense I can taste it rattles the floor and ceiling, pent up and ready to be released.

            …But.
            Avenger hunches her body down, gripping the hilt of her sword with both hands.
            Sweat stands out on her face and on the few exposed parts of her skin.
            With gritted teeth, she fights against the order and holds back the attack about to be completed on its own.

            “—Run!”
            She yells in a hoarse voice.
            “Just hurry up and get out of here before it’s too late—”

            Gulcasa hesitates for just a moment.
            “—I’m sorry.”

            Leaving those words for her sake.
            He leans in low to the ground, holds me so tightly it starts to ache, and explodes across the room like a divine wind.

            My body is jostled sharply.
            He leaps up the stairs six at a time, and the moment after we’ve burst through the narrow doorway, there’s a great sound of detonation from below as though all the force of a tornado was unleashed in a single blast.

            Images of the run-down building are imprinted meaninglessly into my eyes.
            Gulcasa ricochets off the wall, leaving heavy footprints in the painted wood, and blows the front door off its hinges in a racing tackle.

            We are outside.

            “—”
            Involuntarily.
            I catch my breath.

            It’s not from the night air and its bone chill.
            …No.
            Gulcasa curses hoarsely for the same reason.

            I expect that he was supposed to have been our backup.
            Roswell stands with his back to us in the middle of the street, biting his lip.

            In the middle of the wide street, Yggdra is fighting valiantly.
            The enemy Servant that entangles her aims clearly for her vital points as she aims for his, and she dispels them with great strikes of her sword.
            …She’s faster, but he’s more powerful.
            I know this without even having to pause and evaluate.
            Because the “red spear” in that Servant’s hands is not something that a Heroic Spirit of Yggdra’s caliber can safely stand against.

            To give an example, it would be like trying to fend off the great Noble Phantasm of Excalibur with a simple sword breaker dagger.
            The Gran Centurio is powerful. None knows that better than I.
            …But regardless of its great forging and the long centuries that brought it to maturation—it was not forged by the gods.
            It’s of an entirely different rank.

            Yggdra grapples with Lancer, trying to overwhelm him by virtue of simply superior energy.
            But Lancer presses on as if to proclaim that that is not enough.
            Silently.
            The angel closes in on her.

            …Yggdra bites her lip and puts power into her swing.
            The two of them leap apart and widen the distance between them.

            Standing before Roswell, she maintains her ready stance, but her shoulders are heaving as she breathes.
            Lancer, half the road away from his Master and his attendant magus, is still unwinded.

            “—Damn.”
            Roswell breathes out.
            “All right.
            “—Saber, I authorize use of your Noble Phantasm.”

            …But.
            We don’t have time.
            Surely the debris in the house we’ve just escaped will keep Yellma busy for a while, but once she catches up we’ll have Avenger to deal with as well, and our route of escape to the sides blocked off by walled houses.
            If there’s a blessing to be had in this situation, it’s that Yellma should only have a single Command Spell remaining, and thus be unable to order Avenger after us immediately.

            Gulcasa must be thinking the same thing.
            Yggdra is outclassed, and we’re on a time limit.
            Given the circumstances, we don’t have a choice.

            “—Roswell.”
            His attention drawn, Roswell comes to our side.
            “Take Nessiah. I don’t know if he can stand on his own.”
            And I am handed to our ally with care.
            As Roswell is much closer to my own height than Gulcasa and not as strong, he does not hold me by one arm, but rather supports me from the side.

            “What are you—”
            “I’ll take care of this.
            “—The princess is outclassed, but I know that I have more than a fair chance of beating that Servant and doing it quickly.”

            “—Hah.”
            From the other end of the road.
            From the crossroads where this road fits into a junction with the others, the magus speaks up.
            “Don’t even bother.
            “—We know the identity of both these Servants, and it’s easy to tell just by looking that you’re even more hollowed out than Saber is.
            “You can’t win against Lancer like this.”

            While she’s busy boasting, Yggdra takes the opportunity to fall back.
            Her small back now stands between the two of us and obstructs the progression of the enemy.

            “Even if that’s the case.”
            Gulcasa stands in defiance.
            Past his back, I can only see the vague silhouette of Lancer’s black wings.
            Haloed by starlight like stained glass.
            Gulcasa’s long hair ripples in the wind, like a stream tipped in fire.

            “Ein.”
            Further away than my range of vision, the attendant magus speaks as if to prompt Lancer’s Master into action.

            “—Yeah.
            “Go ahead and beat him, Lancer.”

            At that time, the angel lunges.
            Gulcasa, braced to receive the attack, catches the blow along the hooked curve of his scythe, sinks back, and repels Lancer with all of his might—!!

            As Lancer dances back from being thrown, catching himself on one toe with his great wings flushed outright—
            Gulcasa settles into an open stance and raises his face to the sky.
            Perhaps the enemy is puzzled by such an action, as it must seem like Gulcasa has surrendered his defenses.
            The empty red eyes of the opposing Servant narrow in consideration.

            He raises his Diviner as if to lunge forward once again—

 

            “From the abysses of the earth, the dragon wakes—”

            At that single, arresting voice.
            My heart contracts as if it has stopped.

            The air is dead.
            Lancer’s eyes widen as if in realization, and the dead air shudders.
            I can smell phosphorus and ash in the wake of the rotting wind.
            The atmosphere around us is so tense with prana that it feels solid.

            Adrenaline bursts.
            Adrenaline rocks my veins with enough force to burst them, and my senses all sharpen.

            In the handful of seconds that have passed since Gulcasa began to speak.
            My body has flooded with automatic hyperawareness, heartbeat hushed in anticipation—

            “—mad crimson flames become my blood—!”

 

            And the night shatters.

            It’s not a metaphor.
            It’s just that the sky and the world around us cracks, and that flame and smoke pour through the vents, rewriting everything in our sight.
            Pure crimson fire blossoms around Gulcasa’s body.
            Like a red rose unfolding, or like the blossoms of a peony all exploding like a firecracker.

            We are standing on hard-packed scorched earth, and the world is dead.
            Nothing grows here, yet paradoxically fire continues to leap from the wasteland.
            The air is tense and electric and tastes like a thunderstorm about to pour down from cracks in the clouded skies.

            “—No, way—”

            The weak voice belongs to Lancer’s Master.
            But I can see the same sentiments echoed on the awed face of Roswell beside me.
            He and I, and Yggdra who stands empty-handed before us, are merely spectators—as are the two enemy Masters across the wastes.

            “Reality—Marble.”
            It’s again Lancer’s Master that proclaims it.

            …Yes.
            A Reality Marble, forbidden magecraft that forcibly repaints the physical world in a full manifestation of the caster’s inner world.
            This is—the ultimate realization of Gulcasa’s lineage, the scenery passed down through the hearts and minds of all true successors of that demon’s blood.
            His final—and most powerful Noble Phantasm, the crystallization of Brongaa’s world that forgives no power but that of its master.
            Death of all things, final baptism by fire.
            Genocide—the ancestral name of this spell, and this world, is truly befitting.

            Amidst it all.
            Gulcasa stands with his body burning red.
            An oppressive presence emanates from him, almost as if gravity has increased threefold.
            Even I cannot move.

            “—”
            Lancer continues to face Gulcasa down with no change in expression.
            …It’s not surprising.
            He has probably faced down a number of demons over the course of his existence.
            It’s just that in this place, the spear in his hands almost looks as though it can be perceived in ordinary dimensions rather than bending the eye so that they are imperceptible.

            Without warning.
            The two of them clash.

            There is no longer any sense at all of Gulcasa’s former exhaustion.
            The impact of his strike flings Lancer back easily.

            “—Lancer, your Noble Phantasm—”
            A voice already devoid of hope cuts the dead air.

            “Ineffective.
            “—Release of any Noble Phantasm is impossible in this space.”
            Lancer replies without emotion, not even pausing in his battle.
            Gulcasa continues to fight relentlessly.

 

            The first.
            Lancer misses a parry, and his body is lightly torn with the blade of Gulcasa’s scythe.

            The second.
            Blood dirties the pale dry ground like the spray of a fountain.

            …And, finally.
            With the force of an earthquake, Gulcasa lunges.
            The perfect arc of his blade flashes out at an angle, and cuts the enemy nearly in two.

            The air shakes with Gulcasa’s roar of exertion, but Lancer makes no sound.
            The angel does not even cough up blood, but presses his white lips together and closes his eyes.
            …In a whirlwind of bright white particles like feathers let loose from a torn mattress, he vanishes.

            And the Reality Marble dissipates, becoming transparent in stages as if being peeled back to reveal the world underneath.
            The fire that haloes my Servant’s body dissipates, rather more like losing opacity than as if it has gone out.

            Lancer is gone.
            All that remains are the distant figures of two magi: the boy collapsed to the ground in shock, and the girl with her fists clenched.

 

            “—Go.”
            No one else speaks, so I cut the heavy night air with my voice.
            “Another Servant will be coming soon, and so if you value your lives, you had best be out of this place with all due speed.”

            Over the faint sound of the wind.
            Retreating footsteps, staggered and then breaking into a run, are all that can be heard.

            “—”
            Gulcasa relaxes slightly with the enemy before us gone.
            His shoulders move rhythmically, as if he’s breathing with great pain.

            Roswell and Yggdra just stand there as if lost for words.
            It looks as though neither of them will take initiative, so the responsibility is still mine.

            “We need to get out of here.
            “—Avenger could come boiling up out of that house at any time, and I cannot speak for you two, but I can’t fight right now and Gulcasa doesn’t have the strength to keep using that over and over.”
            “—Oh.
            “That’s right.”
            Roswell remarks beside me as if abashed.

            “—I’ve got you.”
            Gulcasa turns around and says so, holding out his arms.
            His eyes are still clear, but there’s sweat on his face and his breathing is rough from the fight.

            …Ah.
            Now that I try to walk, my body’s actually quite shaky.
            I suppose there’s no helping it after the past day.
            My body is starting to ache in various places, and now that I realize it I’m rather thirsty.

            But I push myself a little.
            …Gulcasa’s in this state too, and here he is volunteering to carry me.

            “—All right.”
            He lifts me up with both arms, letting his armor dissipate like the fire that surrounded him did just a few moments ago.
            That’s considerably better.
            He doesn’t have to use up prana to maintain it, and it’s a lot more comfortable.

            “—”
            And we run.
            Rather, Gulcasa runs, and so does Yggdra who is carrying Roswell.
            We run, and I close my eyes as the scenery of Miyama whips by.

            It takes about ten minutes to get back to Roswell’s house in Shinto.
            I don’t get a very close look, but it appears that the damage to the house and the garden has been neatly repaired over the past twenty-four hours.

            It’s silent as we retreat inside.
            It feels like relief on the part of Roswell and Yggdra, but for Gulcasa who sets me down on the sofa it feels more like exhaustion.
            And I’m too worn-out to try to categorize what I’m feeling.

            As I sit back.
            Gulcasa slumps to his knees on the floor.
            …Ahh.
            I don’t have the energy to move over and see if he’s fainted or sat down.
            My eyes close.
            ……This is bad in a lot of ways.
            My consciousness is patchy.

            A floating sensation envelops my body.
            I surface once or twice.
            Brief images of Roswell touching various abrasions on my skin.
            A cup being held to my lips, and my body being carried.
            But when the lights go out, my brain gives up on being active.

 

            As the fifth defeated Servant’s prana seeps into my body.
            My conscious mind shuts off as though someone somewhere has turned it off with a switch.

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            The land that the young captain arrived in at the end of his quest for answers was a dead place.
            In ancient times, many great wars and calamities had happened here, and the result was that centuries later the entire country was still an arid wasteland.
            …According to his information, this was the place that the final battle with his demon ancestor had been fought.
            Therefore, it was here that people were carrying out research on that demon, and if anyone could assist him in removing the seal on his blood this should be the place.

            It didn’t take much investigating to discover the old shrines, and from there on he and his army quickly attracted the attention of the workers there.
            When he told them why he had come, their response was a worried kind of silence.
            …And.
            They brought out a certain woman.

            By her clothing, she was a great priestess or oracle of some sort, and she introduced herself as the head researcher in the area.
            When the young captain begged her for her aid—she did not directly reply.
            …When she spoke, it was as if in riddles.
            Actually, her meaning was extremely plain.
            She lamented that the young captain had come here, and recalled that after her departure his father had come to blame him, and that blame had been the cause of the abuse he had gone through as a child.
            The implications were extremely clear.
            It wasn’t that she was being obtuse, but that the young captain was so bewildered by the revelation of his mother’s identity and her whereabouts for the majority of his life that he had great difficulty understanding.

            In a dry voice like broken leaves on earth about to frost over, she explained.
            That she had known since her son was still in infancy that he had inherited inhuman blood, and that she believed the ancient dragon’s power could only bring people misery.
            Fearing that even if he never suffered a complete inversion impulse, he would be used by others due to his powers, she had attempted to seal them.
            And, in order to create a truly permanent seal, she had left the family to carry out her research alone.

            …In clinical tones, she explained.
            That no matter how the young captain desired to break the seal, she would not lift it.
            That if he really wanted his birthright and the ability to determine his own fate rather than live the life she had decided for him, he must kill her and destroy her spell.
            She called his power inhuman, and told him that he must therefore throw away his humanity in order to claim it.
            Subjugate his kindness, his hesitation, his fears.
            If the blood of demons running through his veins was a power that would not allow mercy, a power fit for those who sought to crush others under their feet, then matricide should be a fitting ritual for him to claim it.

            She took up her weapon.
            In absolute tones that would allow no argument or negotiation, she demanded that her son strike her down and bathe in her blood, or that he leave and give up for all eternity.

 

            …I cannot hope to understand.
            What that boy felt at that time, how overwhelmed he must have been and the weight of his shock and his despair at so many brutal revelations all at once.
            The pain of being battered by such words from an existence that should have protected and guided him instead, for the third time in his life.
            I, brought into this world by gods and not as the fruit of a mother’s womb, would be insulting him if I claimed to understand.

            It’s just that at that time.
            In my memories, and reflected before me in his own—the silhouette of the young captain seemed very frail and forlorn.

 

            …But.
            Questioning his resolve, ill with self-doubt and horror at what he had been ordered to do—
            The young captain thought of the girl who had died because of his weakness.
            The woman standing before him on the battlefield had given birth to him, but that girl had been his mother in every other sense of the word.
            She had sheltered him, raised him, given him hope and strength and supported him emotionally for all this time.
            …He had failed to save her, but if he did this thing he would obtain power enough to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again, and furthermore become capable of burning down the corrupt and unjust world that had been the root of all their suffering.
            And once he had done so, he would use that power to create a new world that sheltered and cradled the weak rather than exploiting them.
            If this was his only choice at ever obtaining power—then what of his love for the girl who had raised him, if he could not win?

            And the boy took up his spear and rode into battle.

            Underneath a blistering sun.
            After an entire day’s worth of terrible combat, he forced down his bile and his reservations and he struck down the mother who tore him apart with her cruel words and her coldness.

            …And, unbelievably.
            Losing the fight and mortally injured, she smiled placidly and broke the seal herself.
            Willingly, she returned to him everything: The blood and the power and the true name she had stolen away.
            The seal had been held in place by the false name he had believed to be his, and weakened as it was by the emotional trauma he had suffered, taking back his original name would shatter it.
            …For the first time in his memory.
            She smiled at him like a parent, and scolded him not to let his power rule him.
            She told him that she believed in him, and she died.

            He did not understand, and he did not know how he should feel.
            —All that he knew was that he at last held the key to revolution in his hands.

            He buried his mother.
            …For the fourth time in his short life, he sent a parent off to the other world.

            As the army made preparations to leave the shrine.
            The young captain retrieved a scythe from the ritual tools kept in the ancient building.
            It was a weapon he had never handled, and it was fragile with age, but a skilled blacksmith could combine its blade with his spear.
            With this new weapon in hand—he performed the funeral rites for the child he had been.

                        “—From today onward, my name will be Gulcasa.
                        “I’ll forget my other name in time. It was a weak name.”

            He held his head up and encouraged himself with words like that.
            Even the woman who had birthed him did not consider him human any longer, and so he must walk the path to his chosen future unflinchingly.

            …But on the road to return to the empire, to begin the war that would free his country and save his fellow poor—
            Given his physical and emotional state, it was inevitable.
            Unable to bear the sickness of the body that burned as it tried to cope with the sudden freedom of its blood, and the sickness of the heart and mind that had witnessed so much loss in so short a time—the young captain finally collapsed.

            The boy who was his surviving childhood friend was not there to support him.
            It was only to be expected, for he knew that his childhood friend would have preferred the girl he loved to have survived instead.

            The traveling warrior who had tutored him in the ways of the world was not there to support him.
            He didn’t understand the reason, but ever since the battle against the landgrave she had been avoiding him.

            …It was all right.
            Delirious and unable to move his body, he accepted it with a tranquil sort of pain.
            He wasn’t the only one sick at heart from the girl’s loss.
            In order to see this battle through to the end, he would simply have to shoulder his emotions and keep leading the others.
            Even if they couldn’t be by his side right now, this was still possible for him—he deluded himself with thoughts like that.

            …But the young captain who would become the general of the revolution once he crossed the empire’s borders was not alone.
            Physically and emotionally drained by the recent events, bereft of the two surviving people he was used to relying upon—there were still loving comrades at his side.
            It was the prophet who was the first to reach out and support him, when he had lost the strength to go on and had forgotten that simple fact.
            And after that—the bashful knight, and the twin girls, and the witch, and the former thief… every single one of them.

            …He wasn’t alone.
            The boy that he loved was there. The friends he trusted were there.
            While his body was still unstable, and while his heart was still about to break with all his grief and shock, he could still draw strength from them.
            Even in the times that he didn’t know what to believe in anymore, he could still believe in their bonds.
            With their help and support, surely he would be able to master his demon blood, and have it become the weapon that they needed so desperately to save the empire.

            …That didn’t mean that the pain went away all at once.
            But even so.
            He was able to stand, and face forward once again, with all the fires of his determination building towards the battle that lay in wait—

 

            …My body is burning hot.
            My limbs are made of melting lead.
            —It’s hot.
            Even when I try to get up to avoid the heat, my body won’t move properly.
            I know this feeling.
            This is the sensation of my body straining to bear the aftermath of a Servant’s defeat.

            “—”
            Wild panting escapes when I breathe.
            I feel dizzy, but it should clear.
            Certainly the capacity is rather more crowded, but at the same time I had very little prana left in my body last night when Lancer was defeated, and Gulcasa depleted most of his stores of prana as well.
            The connection between us is functioning just fine, so as long as he’s taking larger quantities to make up, then some of my ability to control my body should be returning soon.

            It should really be coming back soon.
            …It’s hot and uncomfortable here, so with a vague thought that I should get to somewhere cooler in order to get control over my body back, I move towards the side of the bed.

            …There’s a loud noise.
            Dizzying movement.
            I close my eyes for a moment—

            And when I open them, I’m staring up into Roswell’s face.
            “—Oh.”
            My voice comes out vaguely.
            I can tell that I’m lying on the floor.
            It’s not quite as hot, which is pleasant, but my shoulders and the back of my head hurt rather a lot, as if I just rammed them into something.

            …I suppose the implication here is that I somehow rolled or fell out of the bed.

            “Are you all right?
            “You shouldn’t move when your body is in this state; you could have called someone to help you get up.”
            Roswell scolds me.
            I’m not entirely sure what to make of this development.

            “—I’d prefer to skip the lecture for now, if you don’t mind.
            “My body feels rather feverish, so I’d like to get somewhere that I can cool down.”

            “—Right, I understand.
            “Bear with me, and I can help you get downstairs. It’ll take some time, but after the rough time you’ve had lately, it’s only understandable that you’re not functioning too well.
            “And then I can fix something cold for you to eat.”
            It’s not until Roswell has carefully positioned me with an arm over his shoulders as if to help me walk that I start to wonder.

            “…Please don’t take this as my being ungrateful for your help.
            “But why are you here?”

            Roswell sighs.
            “I suppose that Yggdra could also carry you if you want to move more quickly, but I don’t know how comfortable you would be with that arrangement.
            “As for Gulcasa, he’s been asleep since we arrived here last night. It was too difficult to move him to another room, so between Yggdra and myself we got him onto the sofa and let him be.
            “…His prana levels are a little bit low, but his body seems more or less normal otherwise. He was probably just worn out emotionally and got tired, so we decided to let him rest.”

            …That’s quite a while for Gulcasa to sleep.
            Then again, the problem with that particular Noble Phantasm is that it costs a lot of energy.
            When Gulcasa was alive, that cost was mitigated somewhat because part of the way his Reality Marble works is by taking small amounts of prana from all those fighting alongside him.
            Even in this state it was enough for him to easily overwhelm the disarmed Lancer, but on the battlefield where he was at the head of an army, it was a truly fearsome spectacle to behold.

            —Reality Marble, Genocide.
            A scenery passed down through the hearts and minds of all the true inheritors of the demonic dragon Brongaa’s blood.
            Incidentally, the way that that spell would ordinarily work would be to drain the lesser lives surrounding the caster until they die, or close to the point of death.
            But Gulcasa rarely uses it in that method.
            I would suppose that for him it is a matter of principle, as all his life he has preferred to sacrifice his own life and health rather than those of the people dependent on him if at all possible.
            Even to save his own life, he would have to be strongly coerced into sacrificing another.
            It’s both a good thing and a bad thing, for a lot of reasons.
            Anyhow, Gulcasa’s strength and the strength of his Reality Marble are a matter of the power of his bonds with others.
            Borrowing the strength of his men, he would fight as a single man with the power of a full-fledged army, making him an incredibly dangerous opponent.

            The trouble is that in times when he has no army at his disposal, Gulcasa must initiate the Reality Marble solely using his own internal stores of energy.
            When he was alive, he would do so and push himself into terrible illnesses, making his already fragile health even more unstable.
            …Now, as a Servant, I would estimate that if he uses his Reality Marble more than once within a certain span of time, he would need emergency treatment or he might not be able to manifest himself, let alone fight afterwards.
            Supplication of extra prana, through sex or the sacrifice and consumption of human souls.
            It goes without saying that Gulcasa would only be able to tolerate one of these methods without serious persuasion and even the application of another Command Spell.
            Anyway, the prana cost of Genocide is incredibly high when Gulcasa imposes it all on his own body.
            If he’s sleeping to conserve energy he should be all right, which is a good thing because I don’t know if I’m steady enough to handle intercourse right now.
            In various ways.

            …Even amongst Heroic Spirits, the possession of a Reality Marble is apparently relatively rare.
            This makes those who use them even more distinctive, and is an especially obvious marker to any given hero’s identity.
            Between that and the sheer bad gas mileage involved, I would have been happy if Gulcasa had managed to go the entire war without casting Genocide, but what’s done is done.
            It’s a trump card because it secures victory, but its potential cost is still quite grave.

            At any rate.
            While I’m still spaced-out, Roswell brings me to the bathroom and has me undress halfway so that he can carefully sponge off the nape of my neck and my back while I wipe down my chest and arms.
            It still does bother me a bit, even if Roswell’s businesslike doctor air isn’t as grating as Gulcasa’s awkward tenderness, but it feels so nice to wash off my sweat and cool down my body that I don’t care.

            After that, I am brought downstairs.
            Roswell smiles apologetically as he settles me at the table and departs for the kitchen in order to make breakfast.
            …It’s only when I smell fruit pancakes that I really realize how hungry I am.
            Maybe it’s just that being half starved this entire time has conflicted with getting regular meals at Roswell’s, but I didn’t notice hunger yesterday and now that I’m thinking about it my stomach actually hurts.

            Gulcasa is asleep on the sofa, just as Roswell said.
            He doesn’t move all through breakfast.
            As Roswell and Yggdra move about and make noise, he still doesn’t wake until the clock reads noon.

            “—Nessiah?”
            When he does get up, his body is very sluggish.
            Uncoordinated, Gulcasa tries to drag his body up, but trips and nearly collapses.

            “Honestly, be more careful!”
            Yggdra scolds him, nearly yelling.

            “—Hey, you shut up. I’m not concerned with you, it’s just that Nessiah doesn’t look very good right now, so—”
            With his head tilted to one side and his body listing towards the wall, Gulcasa complains.
            I sigh.
            “…You don’t look all that well yourself.
            “Sit down; we can always move breakfast to the coffee table if that will be more comfortable.”

 

            …And so.
            With breakfast taken care of and the dishes put away, Gulcasa and I are left sitting side by side on the sofa.
            Roswell and Yggdra have both sat down in chairs, so that we’re all facing each other over the coffee table.
            This is the same setup as our strategy meeting several days ago, when I first awakened after arriving here, and despite that we’re all drinking tea and relaxing there’s an echo of that kind of tension remaining in the atmosphere.

            Finally.
            Roswell sets his teacup down in the saucer, folds his arms, and looks at me directly.
            “Pardon my bluntness, but I believe I will get straight to the point.
            “From the information that I have, the actions of Avenger’s Master over the past two days make no sense.
            “When she attacked you here, she did not kill you and instead captured you. As an enemy Master, she should have no advantage of not eliminating one of her foes.
            “—She apparently did try to force you to kill Gulcasa, but only after she had captured you instead of right away, implying that holding on to you was her top priority.
            “It’s incomprehensible, unless I accept that Yellma’s actions were planned out and deliberate, and that she had some kind of advantage to gain from simply possessing you.
            “…There’s more. Aside from her attack—your sickness and its cause are just too suspicious.
            “You were doing well for days, actually starting to recover, and even Yellma’s contamination of your Magic Circuit was unable to faze you.
            “But following Lancer’s defeat, you immediately started to worsen again. Even though Gulcasa was taking extra prana from you through your Master-Servant bond to make up for the stunt he pulled last night, your body has returned to having dangerously high prana levels.
            “—I think I’m right to suspect that there might be some kind of connection.”

            …I wait and hear him out.
            Apparently finished, Roswell sighs.
            He looks down as if holding his regrets.

            “…Nessiah.
            “You and I are allies, and to me an alliance carries the meaning of mutual trust.
            “Even knowing that you and Gulcasa might not be able to aid us in battle, we opened our home to you in belief that we could trust you, in exchange for cessation of hostility.
            “So—is it really that unreasonable to ask that you explain what this is?
            “It appears as though Yggdra and I may be in danger due to whatever you’re keeping concealed, and so I think that we have a right to know.”

            Roswell says something a little bit selfish and stares at me.
            Yggdra is watching him discreetly rather than looking at me, but I can tell by the way that her body isn’t fully turned towards him that she’s still interested in my answer.

            “—Nessiah.”
            Gulcasa turns partially toward me.
            It’s a gesture as if to shield me, and his eyes ask me if it’s really all right.

            I let my breath out in a sigh.
            I’m grateful for his concern, but I can’t really pretend that this is a conversation that could just be put off indefinitely.
            I might have been naïve enough to think so at one point, but I know better now.

            “…I know.
            “I don’t think that it’s possible to just keep everyone in the dark about this forever.
            “But—it’s difficult to know where to begin.”

            I look down at the teacup in my lap.
            Taking a deep breath, I decide on a starting point.

            “—Roswell.
            “How much do you know about how the Fuyuki Grail functions?”

            “Eh—well, I’ve done research using documents from the Association since the house of Verlaine was marked to receive a Command Spell in the sixth war, but…”
            Roswell trails off, folds his arms, and makes a face as if he’s preparing to recite something.
            “The Holy Grail summons the Servants, who pair up with Masters and determine who is worthy of it.
            “—Over the course of the war, the Holy Grail fills up proportionally to the number of Servants defeated, so that when there’s only one Servant left standing the Grail is complete and may be claimed by the winner… something like that.”

            “I see, so that’s the kind of propaganda that the Association has been putting about to keep people interested.
            “…The Holy Grail in this land isn’t something so innocent as that.”

            Roswell is looking at me uneasily.
            Yggdra’s gaze is very sharp, and Gulcasa’s is steadfast.
            There’s quite a great deal of pressure coming from the three of them, but if I’m going to explain then I must do it from the basics to make them understand.

            “…First of all.
            “The Holy Grail of Fuyuki is comprised of two entities.
            “The Grand Grail is the great magic circle inscribed into the terrain of Fuyuki, created by the Einzbern, the Tohsaka, and the Makiri families at the beginning of the cycle.
            “It’s a self-perpetuating ritual with no will, and as long as it has a functional core and the components that make up the magic circle are intact, it will start up the Holy Grail War all on its own every time there is enough prana in the land.
            “Ordinarily this takes cycles of up to sixty years, an extraordinary amount of prana—it’s distributing Command Spells and summoning Servants, so that’s to be expected.
            “The shorter cycles of the fifth and sixth wars are due to the previous battles leaving a great residue of mana behind that could be reused immediately.
            “Then there’s the Lesser Grail, which is traditionally prepared by the Einzbern for each war.
            “The Lesser Grail is the container used to fill the Grand Grail and open the completed Holy Grail at the end of the war.
            “…And I’ll just explain this now. The Lesser Grail does not fill up proportionally to the number of Servants defeated.
            “The Fuyuki Grail War is not a ritual to determine ownership of the Holy Grail. It is a ritual to create the Holy Grail.
            “…The Einzbern desired to regain the Third Magic, Heaven’s Feel.
            “The Tohsaka desired to reach the Origin, and the Makiri desired immortality.
            “The Holy Grail is a relic powerful enough to grant one of these desires, as a true Grail would build a bridge even to the Origin itself.
            “Aside from the two instances of Heaven’s Fall, the inverted moon—the Grail fills with colorless prana that can be used however the victor pleases.
            “But, that which fills and creates the Grail is the processed prana of the Servants.
            “The Servants are sacrifices prepared to create the Holy Grail. When they are defeated, they flow into the Lesser Grail.
            “Once six Servants are dead, the Grail is usable, and when it opens its colorless prana will flow out. If seven—or more, in this war and the past one—were to die, the Grail would open up its bridge to Akasha.
            “…That is the truth of the Holy Grail War.”

            I look directly at Roswell and tell him plainly and unflinchingly.
            I don’t spare a glance for either Yggdra or Gulcasa.
            …I fully expect both of them to be extremely displeased.
            This is a ritual that perverts the Heroic Spirits for the selfishness of humanity.

            Roswell covers his face with a hand.
            Horror and understanding war on his fine features.

            “But—wait.
            “Isn’t that strange?
            “The Grand Grail is an automatic machine, and the Einzbern just left it alone?
            “No, more than that—the Einzbern aren’t even participating in this war, so why—”

            “…I see you’ve come upon the heart of the matter.
            “The Einzbern have gotten what they wanted out of the Holy Grail War, and no longer participate. The other two families are not available to participate either.
            “Even if the Grand Grail were to continue according to its function, you would like to say that the war should not be possible without an Einzbern vessel, or a Lesser Grail prepared by Tohsaka or Makiri—yes?”

            Roswell nods very slowly.
            I can feel myself beginning to smile bitterly.

            “—Well, you should relax, because the Einzbern aren’t irresponsible enough to just start up a ritual and keep it going forever.
            “They didn’t want to share their spoils with Tohsaka and Makiri from the start, and only asked for the land of the Tohsaka and the binding magic of the Makiri necessary for this ritual very begrudgingly.
            “So, as you might expect, when the Einzbern were satisfied, they shut down the core of the Grand Grail. The Fuyuki Grail War ended with the fifth cycle.”

            Roswell just stares at me in dumb lack of comprehension.
            …No, he surely must be beginning to realize.

            “—Do you understand?
            “What is happening right now is not a formal Grail War, under the supervision of the three great families of magi.
            “The Grail War ended with the fifth cycle.
            “—But the Fuyuki Holy Grail is made up of three components: The Grand Grail’s core, the Grand Grail’s body, and the Lesser Grail.
            “Imagine if… there was someone with a desire that would be very difficult to fulfill without the ready-processed, great amount of prana of six or more dead Servants.
            “The only thing that prevents the Grand Grail from reactivating immediately is that the core is gone, and that there is no vessel to catch the blood of the dead Servants.
            “So—if one were to replace the core and prepare a new vessel, it would be well within one’s power to reinstate the Holy Grail War.
            “Think of it a little like a computer.
            “The core is the electricity, the body is the programming, and the vessel is a disk onto which data is written.
            “It’s simple to plug in a computer and turn it on so that you can use it for yourself, even if someone else shut it off, and if you bring a blank disk to put inside it, it will write data for you again.
            “—If you think of it that way, this wouldn’t be possible if the Grand Grail’s magic circle had been dismantled rather than the core being shut down.
            “That way, even though there would still be power, the programming that directs the Grand Grail to store up prana and distribute Command Spells would not function, and the ritual could not begin again.
            “Even a skilled magus—even a magician probably couldn’t repair the code in the exact way of the three families, because it required the very specific combination of Einzbern, Tohsaka, and Makiri to craft such a delicate ritual.
            “If you want to put it that way, the Einzbern were sloppy.
            “They were finished with the computer and didn’t want it to be used by anyone else ever again, but instead of dismantling the Grand Grail, they simply destroyed the core so that it would be unusable.
            “It’s difficult but not impossible to replace such a thing. The sixth, heretical Grail War being fought right now should be more than enough proof of that.”

            “—”
            Roswell looks down in amazement.
            He’s still covering his mouth as he furrows his brow.
            I can’t read all of the emotions on his face, and I don’t know how much of his disgust is directed towards me for laying all of this out so matter-of-factly.
            But there’s no other way that I know how to explain such things.
            …They shouldn’t have happened.
            But they happened, and if there’s anything to do about that, it’s to use your anger and disgust productively to confront the one responsible.

            “…I’ll digress a little, but this is about the Lesser Grail.
            “The Einzbern, who are good at creating things, always prepared them.
            “I’ve heard that up through the third cycle the vessel was a real grail, but it was inconvenient, and finally there was an accident where the vessel was damaged and the contents couldn’t be transmitted to anything else.
            “So, after that the Einzbern grails were homunculi, especially created for the purpose of containing the Servants’ prana, because that way the Lesser Grail could defend itself to some extent.
            “There are still limits to being in a human form, and it was only the final Einzbern grail that had the capacity to survive actually being used as the grail.
            “—Even then, the homunculi were created to go dormant after a certain amount of prana was absorbed.
            “A fully human body would be terribly damaged by the amount of prana it would have to contain, and there would be risk of permanent loss of function in some area or another.
            “…So I think you realize, but if someone tried to follow the Einzberns’ example and create a cognizant, complex sentient Grail, it would have a great chance of going awry.”

            “—Nessiah.
            “Please—explain it more directly.
            “I can’t understand what you mean.”
            Roswell says so, but his eyes that hold my gaze are dark with worry.

            “It should be obvious by now, but all right.
            “—There is a certain person who reinstated the Holy Grail War purposely due to his entirely boring desire to become omnipotent.
            “Unfortunately, that man’s ambition and hubris are matched by his talent, and he had a tool at his disposal that would make it possible to substitute a core.
            “After that, he would just have to make something into the Lesser Grail, and manipulate the resulting war so that he would have a high chance of coming out on top.
            “That’s the fake supervisor for this war. In addition to being the Master of Caster, he deployed Lancer’s team and the two Masters of the Riders as his pawns in the case that his own Servant should be defeated.
            “…He is an extremely old and powerful magus, and has access to thaumaturgy that modern humanity has lost, so in any case it would take great power to defeat him in combat.
            “And if he wins the war, he’ll simply use the power to make himself into the new god of the worlds and use them as his playthings.
            “That is the nature of my enemy.”

            “…Nessiah.”
            Roswell stares at me.
            He is very pale.
            “I’m glad that you’ve explained this, but you still haven’t answered my question.
            “—And… how you know all of these things.”

            …Very well.
            I suppose I’ll have to go through with this farce until the very end.

            But.
            When I am about to speak, Gulcasa stands up.

            “—That’s enough.
            “You already realize it, don’t you? So you shouldn’t force Nessiah to say such things.”

            Gulcasa puts himself between me and Roswell and Yggdra, holding his arm out as if to shield me behind it.

            “—”
            The rest of the room fills with hostility as he confronts the two.
            …But all I feel is gratitude.
            Before I realize it, I’m smiling.

            “…It’s all right.
            “Honestly, the princess is involved anyway, and so I am willing to explain for her.”
            …Gulcasa looks down at me as if to ask if I’m sure, and I nod to him.
            After that, he sits down without complaints.

            “—Wait.
            “You’ve lost me. Where does Yggdra feature into this?”
            Roswell is staring in confusion.
            …But beside him, Yggdra is looking at me with very cold and grave eyes.

            “…Roswell.
            “We’ve shared each other’s memories in our dreams.
            “Take a closer look at Nessiah.
            “You may not recognize him—even I wasn’t sure before, but… that was definitely you at that time, wasn’t it?”

            “—Yes.
            “I’ve said as much straight out, haven’t I?
            “But I will make it clear so that Roswell can understand it.
            “I am nearly as old as that man, and we are from the same place.
            “…It’s a very old conflict.
            “He is a human from the world of gods, and I am a kind of angel from the world of gods—the same type of being as Lancer, to give a concrete example.
            “……He was entrusted with great responsibility and power after the war that caused the gods’ downfall, and desires more and more power still until he can replace the gods in truth instead of just in name.
            “Whereas I was born to fight in that war, and when I refused to fight in it, I was tortured and cast out as punishment.”
            I can feel myself smiling bitterly.
            “—We are different existences from modern humanity, he and I.
            “He is effectively immortal by grace of a Noble Phantasm gifted to him by the gods, and I am immortal as a part of my punishment.
            “…The full story of my involvement with these two is quite long and is neither here nor there in perspective of our original topic, but there was a time when I sought vengeance against my original world for the injustice perpetrated against me, and that man in particular for the hand he had in it.
            “That was the selfish reason behind my actions at the time.
            “My having met Gulcasa changed my perspective somewhat, but before I could make a choice as to whether or not I should abandon my quest for revenge—well, being this woman’s distant descendant, you should be aware of the battle between them and how it ended.
            “My body was destroyed by the murder princess here as I tried to protect Gulcasa, and by the time a new one was ready for me to use, it was too late for me to do anything.
            “—I gave up. Some time later, that man found me, and I have been the subject of his less-than-pleasant attentions for a long time.
            “How my own rather uninteresting and foolish story connects to the topic at hand is this—the immortality I have been cursed with, the true Heaven’s Feel of the gods that manipulates my soul, was judged by that man to be similar enough to the arts of the Einzbern to become the new wellspring of the Grand Grail’s power.
            “And one of the things I most dislike about him is his tendency to be annoyingly correct in these matters.

            “—I will be frank.
            “The remains of my original form, which include the chains of the gods’ judgment upon me, are currently being used as the core of the Grand Grail.
            “My body—this body…, is the Lesser Grail.
            “My apparent sickness, and the way that my body is malfunctioning, is because it is not suitable for containing the dead Servants’ prana.
            “I have no safe outlet for this prana except to exhaust my own natural stores. My body is not the correct sex, either—like the Einzbern homunculi who came before me, the vessel in specific is my heart, but a body capable of pregnancy and childbirth would be much more appropriate.
            “The uterus is a natural reservoir for prana, and religious symbology is not the only reason why it is referred to as the ‘grail’ of the human body.

            “What this means is that the Holy Grail cannot be opened without either my opening it, or someone using my body to do so.
            “I do not know how Yellma found out the truth, but the reason she kidnapped me was to attempt to force me to open the Grail for her.
            “—Her plan seemed to be to coerce me to kill Gulcasa through torture and then use her remaining Command Spells to force Avenger into suicide, thus bringing the total of defeated Servants to six and bringing the Grail to a usable state.
            “…Additionally, this means that it is not an option for me to simply remain out of the way until the Grail War is over.
            “Yellma will attempt to capture me again, and once the other Servants are dead, that man will surely come for me himself.
            “And I do not intend to simply lie down and allow myself to be used.
            “—I escaped that man and summoned Gulcasa because the Holy Grail is mine and mine alone. It is my body, and I will allow trespass upon my body no further.
            “Besides. I have—my own wish to grant.”

 

            …After that, the room went silent.
            Yggdra’s expression was extremely cold, and Roswell had a complicated look on his face, as though he wasn’t sure whether or not to be sorry he had asked me anything to begin with.
            A long pause commenced in which I finished the last of my very cold tea.
            Finally, Roswell thanked me very gently for telling him everything, and said that he and Yggdra needed to talk in private about their plans from now on.

            …Gulcasa, steadier and more awake, is standing in the kitchen.
            He has taken out a frying pan, a bottle of olive oil, a grater, and potatoes, and he is steadily grating the potatoes.
            The air about him is deceptively nonchalant, but on second glance his posture is very alert and he is standing in such a way that he is ready to react to anything that might happen.

            …The reason for this is the argumentative voices from deeper into the house.
            Even I can’t make out what they’re saying, but they’ve been going for quite some time now and show no signs of stopping.

            All I can do is wait for them to decide what to do.
            …I honestly can’t blame them for being upset, as they’ve been deceived about the nature of this contest straight from its general premise, and furthermore there is no way they could have been aware of just what they were getting into by agreeing to shelter us.
            If one or both of them are getting cold feet, there’s only so angry that I could get at them.
            It’s just that waiting for them to finish shouting at each other and decide what to do with Gulcasa and I is very exhausting.

            Gulcasa stands in the kitchen and grates the potatoes.
            I don’t know whether he’s cooking as a means to soften the atmosphere or just for the sake of doing something with his hands.

            “…Nessiah.”
            When he speaks his voice is quiet enough that it does not drown out the distant arguing.
            “I think I’ve got a good guess at what you’re thinking right now.
            “…I don’t intend to persecute you for having a fatalistic attitude towards our situation, but I want you to know that if those two come back here and try to throw us out or to attack us—I won’t forgive that.
            “If they betray our trust and the courage you showed in explaining everything, I’ll personally kill them both and feast on their souls to make myself stronger.”
            His words are hard and very cold.

            “—Gulcasa.”
            “That’s the absolute worst case scenario, and I really hope it doesn’t come to that.
            “…But still. I’m your ally first and foremost.
            “The situation is different from what it was before, and if it’s to protect you then I will show no mercy to anyone.”

            Calmly.
            Gulcasa arranges the prepared ingredients and turns the stove on, warming up the pan.
            He’s quiet for a while longer.
            The sound of oil popping makes a counterpoint to the distant sound of voices.

            “—It’s out of our hands now.
            “However this shakes down, we’ll deal with it when the time comes.
            “Until then, though, you need to eat more than just that little bit of breakfast, so I’m making latkes for you. Finish as much as you can, you need the carbohydrates.”
            “—”
            I’m disarmed by the words, and all I can do is laugh.
            …When Gulcasa finally peeks over his shoulder at me, he’s smiling gently.

            “—Really now, this isn’t the time for such things!
            “Just think what a shock those two will have if they return to find us in the middle of foreplay, of all things.”
            Gulcasa bursts out laughing, a bright and kind sound.
            “Hey, I think that kind of thing needs to wait a while so that we’re both more stable physically—though, that does remind me, I still need to steal some oil while they’re not paying attention.
            “When I’m seducing you for real, you can look forward to a much more extravagant meal than just a simple plate of latkes.
            “No, I’m just making you something warm so that it’ll fill you up, and it’ll be easier for you to go to sleep when we know what’s going to happen next.”

            Finished cooking, Gulcasa leaves the pan on the stovetop to cool off, and we sit on the living room sofa with two plates’ worth of pancakes made from shredded potato.
            They’re warm and just a little greasy, and I can tell with one bite that Gulcasa has used a slightly lighter hand with the seasonings of black pepper and lemon juice than he normally does, resulting in a plain and comforting taste of starchy potato fried to a golden crisp in olive oil.
            It’s decadent just sitting and eating when we’re not even at the kitchen table.
            The warmth of the food is relaxing, and I think that if not for the tension of waiting for the others to return I might actually fall asleep.

            In the end there’s enough time for Gulcasa to go and put the dishes away.
            …But just like the smell of oil and potato, the warmth lingers in the air, and we sit in comfortable silence.
            Even though I can’t move, and even though all I can do is wait.
            …Right now it’s enough to know that Gulcasa will definitely defend me.

            It’s the middle of the afternoon by the time that Roswell and Yggdra return.
            They stand shoulder to shoulder, facing us united with their hands touching slightly.

            “…We’ve talked things over.”
            As he was the one to question me, Roswell is also the one to deliver the verdict.

            “We talked about a lot of things—what you’ve told us, the Grail War and its direction, what to do from now on…
            “And—I’m sorry it took so long, but we’ve come to a decision.
            “I feel like we should be apologizing, because it can’t have been easy to wait not knowing.”

            Roswell avoids my gaze and talks as if he feels guilty.

            “…This Grail War isn’t something that we can accept.
            “It’s an insult to the Heroic Spirits, and it’s a perversion even of the original ritual.
            “But—”

            Yggdra interrupts.
            “…It would be very easy to simply withdraw from the war.
            “I could have Roswell command me to let my magical energy dissipate, and I would simply return to the Throne right away.
            “But we realized that if we did that, it would just give all of the prana that makes up this incarnation to someone else, to use for their own selfish wishes.
            “So, we won’t give up the fight so easily.”

            “…And on top of that, it wouldn’t feel right to just abandon you now.
            “Berserker is a very powerful Servant, but Nessiah’s body will disable him more as the fight goes on, and without help it will be hard to fight against a foe like the one you described.
            “—I don’t know what your wish is.
            “But I think it wouldn’t be something like the wish of your enemy.
            “So, if you were to somehow win this war that you were dragged into against your will… that’s an outcome that I think I, at least, could accept.”
            Roswell closes his eyes and shakes his head.

            “…In short.
            “We’ll fight as your allies, and we’re not withdrawing from the Grail War.
            “There are still a lot of things to think about, but if we defeat all of the enemies and face the end together, then there’ll be time to decide what to do with the Grail itself then.”

            “Then—”
            At Gulcasa’s interjection, Roswell smiles a little.
            “…That’s right.
            “We can’t just leave you two alone like this.
            “So—this alliance will continue as it always has been, and we intend to help Gulcasa defend you from anyone that comes trying to capture and use you.”

            …Hmm.
            I still feel as though I can sense some discord between the two, and the way that they’ve phrased things means that I can’t rule out the possibility that our alliance will come to an abrupt end after we defeat Caster and Avenger.
            …They also haven’t explicitly said that they have given up on the Holy Grail, and so I suppose I cannot let my guard down completely.
            But this is better than it could have gone, and so I will simply have to accept the reality before me.

            “—There’s part of that that I have to object to.”
            Gulcasa goes ahead and says so baldly.

            Roswell and Yggdra just look at him blankly.
            He appears to interpret this as an invitation to continue speaking.

            “…Look, we’re certainly happy that you’re not abandoning us and don’t intend to attack us now, but…
            “In case you didn’t quite understand it when Nessiah said so—he is the Holy Grail itself.
            “If you intend to forcibly use him as an object and trample over his own will for your own benefit just like everyone else, you’ll find that I won’t forgive such a thing.”

            “—”
            Roswell stares at him in amazement.

            “—I’ll say so right now, but we would not sink so low as that.”
            Yggdra answers him with pride and danger in her voice.
            “Roswell has no wish for the Holy Grail, and the wish that I have fought for is not something that I want granted by the sacrifice of my fellow Heroic Spirits.
            “Neither he nor I have any use for a heretical object like this contradictory grail.
            “But there is one circumstance in which we would not allow either of you to access its power, and that is if you intend to use it to harm others.
            “If we discover that you would take such a path, we will not hold back on even you.”

            …Ah.
            Given the character of these two people, there’s no mistake.
            I can’t think that she is lying.

            “……If that’s the case, then you can rest at ease.
            “It’s true that my own wish is for personal gain, but it’s also not something that should cause hurt to other people.
            “If you don’t believe my words, then once this battle is over I’ll prove it to you with my actions. Rest at ease.”

            …Roswell and Yggdra look at one another.
            Gulcasa is still sitting warily beside me, ready to take action if need be.
            But when Roswell lets out a breath, his shoulders relax.

            “…All right.
            “Then, I trust you.”

            It ends like that.
            …After all that drama and tension, the air softens, and things go back to the way that they were before I explained everything.

            Gulcasa picks up my tired body and tells the others that he’s going to take me to bed.
            …I know better than to argue.
            I can’t move very well, and if I’m not active I’d fall asleep anyway, so there’s no point in complaining that I would rather stay awake.
            Besides, in my dreams my physical problems won’t bother me.

            He takes me effortlessly up the stairs and lays my body down on the bed.
            …But before he goes.
            That’s right, there’s something very important that I have to talk to him about.

            “—Gulcasa.”
            “What is it?”
            …Oh.
            I really don’t know what to say.

            “About—everything that I explained earlier.
            “You still… haven’t said anything.”
            Like complaints about the nature of the Fuyuki Grail War, or grudges about my not having told him all of this earlier.
            Like my admitting that my having been with him was, at the beginning, born of my own selfish desires for revenge—which is good as having admitted straight out that I was just using him when we first met.
            He surely must have grievances to air about one of these things, but he kept quiet about them to present a solid front and to defend me.

            Gulcasa turns his head to the side slightly, considering me with a quite neutral expression.
            “—Honestly, there were no surprises for me in that discussion.
            “If you want to know why, it’s because I already knew all of it.”
            “—”
            My thought processes all grind to a halt and crash.
            “I—what?”
            “Yeah.
            “…Look, I don’t think you’ve forgotten, but—Nessiah, every night when I sleep, I dream about your memories.
            “So I know about what happened to you in Asgard, everything that you went through and put other people through before you met me, how you felt when we were together, and the events that came to pass after I died.
            “I saw what that person Hector did to you, which means that for the past few days I’ve basically figured out everything that you told us just now.
            “About your body failing because it hurts to be the grail vessel, and everything else.
            “—I knew. So I wasn’t surprised or shocked, and there wasn’t really anything of importance to exclaim about.”

            “—”
            “…Hey, you don’t have to make such a stunned face.”
            Gulcasa reaches out to touch my cheek with warm fingers.
            I can feel my face starting to heat up.

            “Why—”
            I can’t finish.
            How stupid—is this person?
            To know all that, and yet to stay by my side without any bitterness at all—

            “It looks like you’re making a pretty big misunderstanding.
            “…Nessiah. I love you, and I know that you’re aware of that.
            “But it seems kind of like you’re unaware of everything that means.
            “I love you. I came to you because you called for me with all that love and desperation, and because I love you.
            “Since being summoned and being able to see why you’ve made the choices that you have, I think I’ve been able to understand you a lot better.
            “And understanding you means that I can’t blame you even if for some reason I’d really wanted to.”

            As he speaks.
            His gaze stays directly on me, and burns up my head with confused emotions.
            Gulcasa smiles.
            It’s a soft and brilliant expression that makes the rest of the world melt away.

            “…I love you.
            “And, you know what? My feelings of love are invincible.
            “They’ll never lose out to anything, not time or any kind of painful revelation.
            “I care about you, I want to make you happy, and I want to be with you.
            “Nothing I ever learn about you is going to change that.”

            “—”
            I can’t speak.
            I can’t hope to answer him.
            Because I can’t think of anything adequate to say, and—because if I try to speak right now, I will surely cry.

            But Gulcasa just smiles.
            “…Anyhow, you need to get your rest.
            “You and I are going to win this ridiculous war.
            “So that we can do that—you’ve got to stabilize your body, and after that we’ll make a plan to get rid of our most dangerous enemy.
            “…All right?”

            Somehow.
            I manage to nod in response.
            “…Okay.
            “Relax and sleep well.”

            He doesn’t move to kiss me.
            He just holds my face tenderly in both hands for a long moment.

            It’s warm.
            Suppressing the urge to cry takes all the energy I have to spare, and so by the time he’s closing the door, my consciousness is already sinking—

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            The young captain crossed the imperial border, and became a revolutionary.
            The war that immediately commenced was as fierce as it was quick.
            …The imperial army couldn’t possibly compete.
            For one thing, they had no sense of camaraderie, nor any real sense of loyalty owed to their motherland.
            That was in sharp contrast to the army of the young revolutionary, which had powerful bonds and fought out of pathos for their fellow citizens.
            And the common people quickly overcame their surprise at the young revolutionary’s change in appearance and demeanor, and rallied behind him, supplying the army with food and shelter and new recruits.
            But most of all—the imperial army could not stand up to the young revolutionary’s power.

            …He still couldn’t use it freely.
            It wasn’t as though he didn’t want to, but that apparently it might put his life in danger—and that even using his powers little by little as prescribed to him caused him to suffer occasional fevers and nausea.
            His allies—specifically the prophet, but also the young girl he had once rescued, who he had been told was his half-sister—restrained him from using his full power for his own sake.
            But even so, none could stand before it.

            Even as they claimed cities and towns and freed the people from the yoke of the government—
            Even as the survivors of the original private army clung together in fearful hope, in friendship, and in love—
            His childhood friend, and the warrior who was his mentor still would not approach him.
            …He could sense them watching him sometimes, didn’t know what to make of it, and didn’t have much energy to spare to investigate it.
            He spent all his days running through the battlefield, and when night came and it was time to set up camp he was far too exhausted to chase after them and try to close the gap from his side.
            But that was all right, because once this was over, there would be time—

            He told himself things like that and faced toward the future.
            There were people to save, and he was so close to granting his and his late foster mother’s dearest wish that he had no energy to spare for other matters.

            If there was one thing that continued to distract him—then it was the fact that in their few interactions, his childhood friend refused to call him by his real name.
            That man continued to use the fake name his mother had used as a seal for his powers.
            Stubbornly.
            As if incapable of accepting or understanding the change in the young revolutionary, or unwilling to respect his desires about how he wanted to be seen.

            …It bothered him.
            Of course it bothered him.
            Being called that—only reminded him of the weakness and failures that he was trying so desperately to overcome.
            But no matter how many times he corrected that man and asked him to use the name he preferred, it was no use.

            The war went on.
            The revolution progressed very quickly in the empire’s state of disrepair, and very quickly the young revolutionary and his men stood before the gates of the capital.
            …The gates that had never been broken down by any assault in the empire’s long and storied history stood before them like a solid and impassable wall.
            But the young revolutionary was not afraid.
            If the wall couldn’t be broken, then he would just have to be the first.
            If it was an obstacle that couldn’t be overcome by “humans”, it wasn’t a problem for him because he simply wasn’t human any longer.

            …It was the prophet who dissuaded him from simply attacking to break the gates with his power, and suggested that they should instead attempt to win over the guardian who held them closed, the most powerful and respected general in the imperial army.
            The young revolutionary had faced that general before, and had respect for his power and integrity, so he agreed.
            …Together, the two of them waged a mental and physical assault on the proud general.
            They showed him their power in a steadfast attack that utilized all their strength and teamwork.
            They demonstrated to him the decay of the empire, by coaxing his reinforcements into surrender.
            …And the young revolutionary personally dealt the final blow, by ceasing his attack and drawing the old general into conversation instead.
            The old general had always fought defensively, as a shield for those things he wished to protect, and so if he truly loved this land and the powerless who lived here, then this coup d’état that was for the people’s sake should not be resisted—
            It went quietly and perfectly like that.
            The old general’s loyalty swayed towards the revolution, and he opened the gates of the capital willingly.

            It was a perfect victory, and it bode well for the upcoming final battle against the emperor and his men.
            Soon.
            …He could fulfill her dying wish soon.
            Resting for the final assault, the young revolutionary stood hand in hand with his lover at the gates, and reflected on everything that had brought him this far.
            …And, at that time.
            His childhood friend came to meet him for the first time in many weeks.
            He walked up and without preamble began to ask the young revolutionary a number of strange questions about his intentions, and whether he believed that any of this would work.
            …All throughout the confusing interview, he continually refused to call the young revolutionary by his real name.
            It was inevitable that the young revolutionary should grow more and more distressed.
            His childhood friend’s face was grim and unreadable, and it felt like some kind of portent of disaster.

            After the interrogation went on for a few minutes, the prophet intervened.
            There was an edge to his polite words as he told his former rival that the young revolutionary needed rest, and his movements as he steered the young revolutionary away from that place were very firm.
            …When they reached a place suitably distant from that area, the young revolutionary’s lover bade him to rest.
            Stress would act as a catalyst for his demon blood, and his body was still too unstable for him to contain it safely.
            If raised with a proper understanding of their powers, his bloodline should not ever suffer what was regarded as an inversion impulse, but for the young revolutionary who had gone from a humanlike state to a fully-fledged demon with powers that had been allowed to mature uncontrolled, things were different.
            And rather than an inversion impulse that would simply make him crazy—if he were to invert, he would die instantly.
            The prophet cautioned him against these things yet again.
            If he overused his blood now, he would wind up chipping away at his remaining lifespan.
            …And if he wanted to change the world and protect the weak, that would take many years after his coup d’état had succeeded.
            Therefore, he must slowly become master of his demon side, and survive.
            The prophet held him and scolded him tenderly, and still unable to fully forget his ominous premonition, the young revolutionary fell into an uneasy sleep.

            …And the final battle was waged the following day.

            The young revolutionary led his men into the streets of the capital.
            He called out to the residents—to the rich who had lived in the walled city in ignorance to the struggles of the poor, but who he now knew had still felt resistance to the emperor’s rule.
            There had not been time to prepare any kind of speech that might sway them, and even the prophet had judged that things might go well if they simply left it to the young revolutionary’s natural charisma.
            …And so, he remembered the way the landgrave had always spoke in the moment that he drew breath to speak.
            His words weren’t beautiful and well-formed.
            No matter that the prophet had gently and patiently begun to correct his diction and teach him to speak more properly, the young revolutionary did not know much about public speaking.
            His vocabulary was still quite plain and unrefined, and so the words that he spoke were unadorned and very simple.
            But if there was anything to be praised about his speech—it was that he spoke honestly and from the heart, the same way that he always had.

                        “To be powerless is not a sin.”

            …Yes.
            As a representative of the powerless who had gained his strength by means of many miracles and the continued support of the people around him—he would fight for their sake.
            He would fight for the right of the populace to live their lives safely and in peace, the right that everyone should carry regardless of their individual differences.

            And his words reached them.
            Rough, unlearned, honest words.
            The people of the capital remembered the military drafts and the taxes and the atmosphere of terror that had gripped them all their lives, and allowed themselves to think that the emperor’s rule was unjust.
            His words reached them, and they reached out to him, allowing the army of the revolution unmolested passage through their streets.

            And so his army clashed with the emperor’s army that lay in wait.
            He easily destroyed the first wave, and overcame the second wave led by the emperor’s chief bodyguard with a little difficulty.
            In the streets of the capital, the young revolutionary crossed blades with the emperor himself.
            The descendant, the natural inheritor of the demon dragon’s power, and the contractor, who had augmented himself with that power artificially based on the ancient customs that were sneered upon by other nations of the continental world.

            During their battle, the emperor scorned him, laughing and repeating the same things that his mother had.
            That this power, that the young revolutionary’s birthright, could do nothing but make others unhappy—that the power of demons that he now wielded made him less than human, cruel and barbaric.
            The emperor mocked him, told him that one day he should rue his decision to claim that power as his tool.
            That there was no difference between them.
            …Even as the young revolutionary continued the battle without pause, those words made him uneasy.
            There was no way that the two of them could be the same.
            But the mad smile of his opponent who declared that they would share the same table in hell was very unnerving.

            ……Perhaps he knew but did not want to admit that there was a possibility of his power one day corrupting him and leading him down the same path as this person.
            But he had been taught that possibility slowly and surely ever since he had accepted the landgrave’s proposal and begun to accumulate knowledge about his world.
            And he knew that if he continued to trust in the people around him to make sure that he remained on the correct path—if he never let his memories of that girl and of his own past die, he would not falter.
            …Even more than that.
            He couldn’t forgive the prejudice of the world that spoke through the emperor, which declared that as demons the two of them were lesser beings, and no one need care if their hearts were trampled and battered.
            That—was the injustice that he had been fighting all along, the mindset that had led to his being abandoned and abused in the first place.

            And so even though his opponent’s words worried him, he refused to give in to them.
            He struck his opponent down.
            And with that, the long war was over.

            …It was over.
            He already had the support of the people, and when the wreckage of the battle was cleared quietly away by his victorious troops, the formalities were dealt with swiftly.
            The empire was ended, and in the same moment it was reborn.
            His revolution complete, he would become the new emperor, and after his coronation on the following day he would be free to start reforming the country.

            …That night.
            On a whim, perhaps because the day had been as busy as a whirlwind and he had not been able to calm down, the new emperor ventured outside the castle that was now his home.
            …On its steps, his body collapsed.

            A great heat overwhelmed his body.
            Thirst.
            Something like lust.
            No matter how much he gasped for air, his lungs weren’t drawing in enough oxygen, and he could barely move.
            Without a means to attempt to save himself, he would surely drown in this too-sweet fever and die.

            In his field of vision overwhelmed by phantom flames.
            His lover—the prophet appeared from inside the castle and ran to him.
            The calm voice cut through his hazy head.
            …The young emperor had overdone it in the battle, and his overstimulated and unsatisfied demon blood was attempting to invert.
            The natural instincts of the dragon inside him needed sacrifice, could not be quelled with the deaths of the enemy on the battlefield, and unless sated immediately would claim the young emperor’s life as the price.
            He would die because of his carelessness, and everything up until now would be for nothing.

            Distantly.
            Through fever and panic, drowning in the sensation akin to acute sexual arousal—he heard the prophet calling for someone.
            A foot soldier the young emperor did not recognize—someone in his army’s colors emerged from the castle.
            The prophet explained firmly that his only choice would be to consume the life of another with the ritual in his blood—the dragon god’s Reality Marble, Genocide.
            He would be consumed himself if he did not sacrifice another.

            …But the young emperor was paralyzed in horror at the thought.
            Surely, he could not do such a thing.
            His life was not so important that he could deliberately kill one who served him and depended on him to prolong it.
            These were the lives that he had gone so far to protect, and he could not prey on them no matter the demands of his body.

            The soldier whispered.
            The soldier said to him that his life did not matter if the young emperor’s ideal could live on, and that he would gladly give it away as an offering.
            …Still, he could not bring himself to do it.

            And.
            The voice of the prophet that had been very calm rose sharply.
            …He said.
            In a firm tone that leaked panic, he called out that he could not lose his loved one now.

            The young emperor remembered his own pain and grief at the loss of the girl.
            …And in that single moment of weakness, his body moved automatically.

            Intense—pleasure.
            His voice escaped him in a scream of gratification and of self-hatred, blotting out the foot soldier’s single cry of pain.
            He tasted blood, the fever that had wracked his body with terrible aches became comfortable, and his conscious mind was deafened with an orgasm so intense that his entire body convulsed.

            He couldn’t remember clearly what happened after that.
            …He knew the sound of the prophet’s voice, and the taste of the soldier’s blood, and the terrible dark pleasure of his body invigorated by the fresh vitality of another.
            He thought that the prophet held him until his body stopped seizing.
            He thought that they might have loved each other, debauched and nearly violent, there on the castle’s obsidian steps.
            He thought that the prophet most likely cleaned him up and calmed him.
            Vague recollections of a conversation about many things.
            His memory is hazy as poorly shot film, thick and grainy and blurred.
            …He came back to himself in stages: a slightly clearer memory of their retreat into the castle to change into clothes not caked with sweat and blood and ejaculate, a memory slightly clearer than that of the prophet departing for the castle interior whereas he himself went back outside.
            …When he could think clearly again, he was just staring blankly up at the sky with the feeling as though he’d just awoken from some kind of terrible nightmare.
            But what he had done—even if it had been involuntary, he could not take it back.
            …To save his own life—for the sake of that girl’s dream.

            He said aloud to himself that he could understand his mother’s consternation over his blood.
            If he’d already been growing into this state as a small boy, it was no small wonder that she had panicked and sealed his powers away rather than trying to teach him to manage them.
            …He was lucky that he had his allies here, a sister and a lover knowledgeable about the demon’s curse on his flesh.
            But—he had to learn to control himself better, and not forget this night.
            This bloodlust in his blood was a challenge to be overcome, but surely he could overcome it.
            He understood his objective for using this power, and he had bought himself time.
            He would be all right.

            …As he held his shaking body upright and tried to convince himself of that fact.
            A voice in the darkness called out to contradict him.

            His mentor—the traveling warrior who had not spoken to him in weeks emerged from the night, armored and carrying her weapon.
            He stared blankly at her.
            And—she calmly announced something absurd.
            That she was here to stop him, as heir to the dragonslayer who had defeated his ancestor in ancient times.

            Unable to understand the situation, he tried to get her to explain.
            …She told him that in the first place they had only met because her journeying the world was an attempt to escape her heritage.
            That she had run away from home in order to prove that the destiny her fellow dragonslayers lived by was nothing more than a myth.
            But she, a descendant of the hero, had met him—the last fully realized scion of the ancient dragon.
            When he demanded to know what had changed her mind about destiny, she denied his words and said that that had nothing to do with anything.
            She was here because she had been spying on him, and had watched him nearly succumb to his inversion impulse.
            And, seeing that, she had made up her mind to kill him.

            As he stood there, his exhausted mind unable to comprehend her story—there were footsteps from behind him.
            The prophet, one of the twin girls, and his childhood friend were here to check on him.
            He ordered them to gather his troops so that he might stop and capture the woman trying to kill him.
            The prophet and the girl returned to his side with backup, but his childhood friend who had run away with a white shocked face did not return.

            …In many ways.
            This battle was far crueler than his confrontation with the emperor.

            His mentor wielded inhuman strength, proof that she was the true descendant of the dragonslayer of old.
            As he fought to repel her, she accused him of already having gone mad, having lost his humanity—of using his long-held ideals as an excuse to swing his power around indiscriminately.
            Even so, he tried to argue back that she was wrong.
            Even if he had to stain his hands with power that wasn’t human—even if he was a demon and he had to fight his inversion impulse for the rest of his life, it was worth it if he could make the ideal world he and his surrogate mother had dreamed of a reality.
            She said that his willingness to sacrifice others was proof that he had thrown away his kind heart, and that the girl who had died would be disgusted to see him now.
            …Even as his mind had frozen under those terrible words.
            With his friends at his back, he was able to disarm and restrain her at last.

            …In the silence of the battle won.
            He asked her if they could not just put this behind them and start over.
            She accepted her loss calmly, looked at him with something like pity, and told him that she didn’t think so.
            In the long and painful silence.
            …The prophet spoke, calling for her death as punishment for betraying him as so many others had before.

            At that time, his childhood friend pushed his way into their encirclement, and shielded his mentor.
            Claiming ridiculous things like having put the dragonslayer up to everything, and that he was the mastermind of the betrayal.
            Pleading for her life like an idiot, so that even she herself told him to shut up and that no one would fall for something that obvious.
            …The man ignored her and looked only at the young emperor, saying that the girl they had loved and lost would only be saddened at any more blood spilled between them.

            As everyone waited for the emperor’s decision.
            …From beside him, the prophet quietly offered to execute the pair of them in his place, and spare him the pain of killing two more people he had loved with his own hands.

            It broke his heart.
            …His friends had fought to defend him, and his lover was willing to kill for him.
            His surviving childhood friend was willing to die to stop this battle, and even though his mentor was acting out of old prejudice, by her words she was also fighting for the sake of his former self, to destroy him now before he went down a path that she had judged to be mistaken.

            He told his soldiers to restrain the two and take them to jail.
            He forbade his followers from taking their lives.
            …They all knew.
            The jails of this castle were old and moldering, as the former emperor had always executed his enemies rather than taking prisoners.
            Damaged in several places, it would be an easy prison for these two trained warriors to escape.
            In reality, he was simply letting them go without punishment.
            But—no one spoke against his orders.

            And by the next morning, they were already gone.

            …He would be crowned that day, and his fight to save the country would begin.
            After the empire had been made a safe place for the peasantry, he would work to save other countries in the same way, until injustice was gone from the entire world.
            He was prepared to spend his entire life working towards such a goal.
            …He didn’t believe it to be impossible.

            As if the betrayal of the last two original founders of the private army had been a heralding bell, his army splintered a bit more before the coronation.
            The familiar still had to fulfill his assigned task, and the Undine was tired of bloodshed; the minstrel who had wandered into his ranks would wander back out on a never-ending journey for inspiration.
            He understood that this was a path too harsh to bind the unwilling to, and bade them all good luck, parting with each of them with love.
            This would not be an eternal farewell like the past night, as they were all aware that the empire was a safe place for them to return.
            …And he told them to treat his childhood friend and erstwhile mentor with kindness, if ever they met on the road.
            Like a fool.
            He smiled painfully and forgave those who had turned their blades on him, let his friends leave even though he wanted them to stay, and refused to betray his inner turmoil as he left to be crowned.

            He would not forget any of it.
            …He would hold it all in his heart, hold his head up, and keep fighting.
            In order to protect the person he had been and all of his memories with the people he loved, he would not falter.

            He accepted the pledges of loyalty from his friends and from the people with a grateful heart.
            …The prophet beside him was the only one who showed any displeasure, but because the young emperor understood that his lover was just angry that he seemed to be endangering himself, he simply accepted it without complaining.

            From that day onward.
            …The most important battle in his life would begin.
            Under the name of “blazing emperor”, he would not give up until he made that distant dream come true—

 

            I wake up to a sense of heat, unresponsive limbs, and a vague feeling of guilt.

            “—”
            With an effort, I’m able to look at Gulcasa curled up in the chair in the corner.
            Truly, this person’s combined gullibility and bad luck are astounding.
            And according to what he said last night—he already knows everything about my side of that affair.
            I still—don’t know what to think, about his lack of blame towards me.
            “Even though I always—”

            If you want to say that he’s stupid for putting so much trust in me and all the other people surrounding him who had an agenda at the time—
            Then I’m at least as stupid as him, for taking advantage of his kindness for so long and then having the nerve to get in over my head.
            “…There’s no helping the two of us, is there.”

            Gulcasa’s body stirs.
            His eyes open slowly, and he sits up, rubbing at his face with the heel of his hand.
            When his gaze falls on me—that warm honey color makes something in my chest skip.

            “—Oh, you’re awake.
            “Good morning.”

            He calls out to me in a slightly slurred voice.
            …Ah.
            I love this person so much, there’s no saving me.
            As I think that, I smile.

            “…Good morning.
            “It appears I’ve beaten you awake again.”

            He stands up, stretches, and comes to the side of my bed.
            That long hair flutters like a solid sheet of red silk, and I want to reach out and touch it.
            But my arm only gives a sad little jerk when I try to move it, and I have to bear down on my will to force it up.
            I only have my hand halfway into the air when Gulcasa holds it in both of his.

            “—Nessiah. Are you in pain?”
            His expression is serious, and it’s past the point where I can really deceive the others about my condition now that I’ve confessed everything, so I take a moment to think before answering.

            “No. Rather—I have very little feeling in the lower half of my body again.
            “There’s a bit of a pins and needles sensation in my fingertips, but I can’t feel much past my knees at all, and it’s rather disconcerting.”
            “—I see.
            “It seems like we’re going to have to take care of this again soon.”
            Gulcasa says so seriously, but his face is slightly red, which ruins the effect.

            “Hmm, I’d like to hurry up and get some first aid too, so to speak. For quite a few reasons.
            “But given the time of day, I would expect that Roswell or the princess will be along to check on us soon, and it would be troublesome to get walked in on.
            “So—I can hold out until night.”

            Gulcasa gives me a sidelong look.
            “Nessiah—there’s only so long that we can wait, with your health at stake.
            “If I’m just taking prana, then I can do that in half an hour or less.”
            “That’s if you’re only taking prana.
            “—I believe I already mentioned that this time we’re going to extend the treatment beyond just that, and actually do it for the sake of doing it.
            “That’s going to take time, because if I can move then I’m going to be doing things for you as well.
            “So, your breakfast will be taking place downstairs with the rest of us, and I’m not going to hear any argument out of you.”

            Gulcasa lets out a long and very aggravated-sounding sigh.
            “Man, you’re a pain. I’m just worried about your health.”
            “…It seems as though you won’t be satisfied until I say this, so I will.
            “It’s nice just being serviced every now and again, I won’t pretend otherwise because I would just be embarrassing myself.
            “But no matter how into it both of us are at the moment, looking back on any kind of sexual contact and remembering that it was for the sake of transferring energy first and foremost is depressing.
            “Furthermore, only receiving that kind of clinical treatment makes me feel like an invalid, which I am not yet.
            “…And—does it make sense for me to say that as nice as it is to listen to you make noise because you’re invested in what you’re doing, I also enjoy it when you’re making noise specifically because of something I’ve done?”

            Gulcasa does not respond immediately, instead covering his face in his hands.

            “…Man, we really need to work out some kind of signal to Roswell or something.
            “If we had some way to tell them to keep out, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

            “We might yet.
            “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to lounge about having sex all morning on an empty stomach.”

            Gulcasa’s shoulders slump in defeat.
            “All right, all right.
            “Here, I’ll carry you downstairs. It’ll be hard to move around if you’re losing sensation in your legs, so—”

            And that is how I come to be carried to the kitchen, held in Gulcasa’s arms like a princess.
            Yggdra, who is drifting around the kitchen table with a distracted air, stops in her tracks and watches as Gulcasa settles me at the table.
            He departs to join Roswell in the kitchen, apparently trying to bully him into handing over the stove and countertop.

            When I turn back around, Yggdra is staring at me.
            She has a thoughtful expression as if she wants to say something, but no matter how I stare back at her, she remains silent.

            “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
            Roswell deposits breakfast on the table, what appears to be a thick fruit pizza laid with many different kinds of fruits on white cream and light dough.
            Gulcasa sets a side of bacon and another side of browned shredded potato down in the middle of the table, and sits down beside me.
            …There are only strawberries on half of the fruit pizza, and so it appears that at least for today we’re going to be avoiding a scene.

            “—Tomorrow.”
            Before anyone has a chance to give thanks for the food, Roswell speaks.
            “I know that this isn’t something that can be put off indefinitely, but—
            “We can talk about strategy and how to deal with our enemies tomorrow.
            “For today, I think it would be best if we allowed everyone time to rest and recover.”

            No one objects.
            …Everyone is very acutely aware that we are getting into one of the more severe stages of the war, and that any one of us may now be living solely on borrowed time.

            Roswell sighs.
            “Then—thank you for the food.”
            A thin choir of murmurs like the whispering of a small brook ensues.
            After that—there is no sound but the impact of utensils against plates.

(interlude 13-1)

            The doors to the church are heavy and resist the motion of being pushed open.
            As if to keep the stench of death firmly enclosed within them, their weight pushes back against the hands that try to intrude upon their territory.

            “—”
            The witch’s footsteps ring out like gunshots on the hardwood floor.
            Entering with foreknowledge, there is tension, but no fear.

            “—Hoh.
            “Don’t tell me that you are here at this late date to give up in the competition?”

            There is a magus in deep blue robes standing at the pulpit.
            He is of average height and build, but his magical aura is intense so as to be crushing.
            From underneath the cowl of his priest’s robes, the witch can feel his colorless gaze.

            With confidence, she smiles.
            “—Oh, that’s not it at all.
            “With only four players left and at this stage of the game, you couldn’t possibly think that I’m here to play along with that farce.
            “No, I’m here because I have a proposition for Caster’s Master.”

            “—”
            Subtly.
            The air in the church changes.

            “The master of Avenger is indeed brazen.
            “—And? If you have business, then you should indeed state it, or else I will interpret your intrusion as that of a fly with an urge to be swatted.”
            A thin smile.
            As the magus speaks, his Servant materializes behind him.

            “—”
            The witch recognizes her.
            Never having seen the enemy’s Servant through her own eyes, she vaguely recognizes the form of the armored archangel from the surveillance lines and through her connection with her own Servant.
            Caster, a Servant from the world of the gods, is a wall of near-perfect defense with three high-ranked Noble Phantasms, a creature leagues above the capabilities of her own Avenger.
            Undoubtedly, this is the most powerful Servant remaining in the war.

            “I discovered who you are the same way that I obtained the information that I am about to offer.
            “As apparently I am the only magus in this town to think of such a thing, my familiars have been watching all the happenings in this war for several days now, and I would be a fool to not keep one eye on this place at all times.
            “—Caster’s movements have intrigued me for some time now.
            “You cautioned all of your subordinate Masters against Berserker, and had your own Servant patrolling sweeps of the town at night.
            “You’re searching for the Lesser Grail that escaped, aren’t you?”

            “I fail to see the relevance of my own actions to your intrusion.
            “Surely, you have come to me with more reason than just to repeat your analysis of my actions back to me.”

            The witch’s lips form the crescent shape of a bow.

            “—The Lesser Grail is tucked into the protective arms of allies.
            “From what I can glean, it appears that Saber and her Master have, knowing the function of the Grail War, consented to remain in the running as accessories to Berserker’s team.
            “The vessel of the Lesser Grail intends to keep it to himself.
            “The two of them have powerful Servants, and even though I have confronted them before, their residence is now fortified with protections powerful enough that they will take me some time to break by myself.
            “But I’ve been listening in on them the same way that I have on everyone, and so—I’d like to offer you a deal.”

            “—Go on.”
            Surely she has piqued the magus’ interest.
            But he simply folds his arms and speaks laconically, his voice dripping with superiority.

            “You see—this world is godless.
            “With the destruction of the gods and the progression to the fantastic age, even the mages outside the confines of humanity can no longer achieve the same kind of arts as we should.
            “Just looking at the difference between your skill level and mine, that much is obvious.
            “—I’ve heard that you, as a representative of the council of seven sages from the world of gods, intend to use the Grail to close the gap in power and become the new god of the world.
            “And to be perfectly honest, that sounds rather interesting to me.
            “…My desire is something that could actually be fulfilled by you rather than by the Holy Grail. I have the power, but lack the knowledge.
            “So—in exchange for a full understanding of the Rule of this world, I’ll lend you my knowledge and my strength.
            “Let’s be allies.
            “Your desires are on a high plane, but I’m only interested in this world. Our wishes should be compatible, especially since I won’t fight you for the Holy Grail once I have what I want.
            “—Mr. Master of Caster, all I really want is for you to let me ride on your coattails.”

            …A small smile.
            Hector—the fake supervisor of the war makes a dangerous expression while considering the witch.

            “—The Rule… is it.
            “Certainly, even a ne’er-do-well magic user such as yourself would be able to become useful with that type of knowledge.
            “And, knowing everything, you proclaim yourself all right with handing the Lesser Grail directly back to me.
            “—You are an interesting woman.”

            …At that time.
            From the air behind her, her Servant appears.

            “—Hey.
            “I don’t know what you’re thinking here, but I can’t consent to this plan.”

            With words of warning.
            Avenger folds her arms and glares down the church aisle towards the pulpit.

            For once.
            The hostility of the Servant is not directed towards her, but rather towards the archangel at the end of the narrow wooden road.

            “Oh?
            “Do you really think that you’re in a position to be arguing with me over my choice of allies, since you’re just my puppet?”
            “—Yeah, it’s really no concern of mine if you want to throw your lot in with someone like this guy; you’ve already proven how bad your sense of these things is.
            “But there is one thing I can guarantee you, and that’s that if you expect me to work together with that thing then you’ve really got to get your head checked out.”

            At the same time.
            “…Caster.
            “So you, too, disapprove?”

            When she looks, there is an expression of mild distaste on that Servant’s face.

            “The decision is yours in the end, Master.
            “But—I simply consider it inadvisable to take that creature as an ally.
            “It is weak, egocentric, and unreliable.”

            “—”
            At that moment.
            From Avenger’s body rises a sharp intent to kill.

            …The witch clucks her tongue.
            Honestly, she should expect nothing less from this Servant, which seems to do everything in its power to hinder her and needlessly get in her way.

            But the magus laughs.
            “—Then, Yellma.
            “This seems as though it should be amusing.
            “—I am sure that you know that a magus of my caliber needs fear nothing from anyone at your level.
            “If you desire to know of the Rule, then you may partake of my great libraries of knowledge as you please.
            “…Rejoice.
            “And arise, as the apostle of my advent.”

            …She did not expect an answer so easily.
            There is a dark flutter like joy in her breast, and she cannot repress her jagged smile.

            “Hmm.
            “—It might actually be that you and I could get along well.”

            At that.
            …The magus called Hector laughs, a rich and sonorous sound.
            Caster looks down, not at her but at Avenger, with eyes so empty of emotion that they betray their condescension easily.

            “…You can’t be serious.”
            And.
            Avenger herself betrays her distaste in a mutinous undertone.

            “—Of course I am.
            “Honestly, I don’t actually need you anymore.
            “So—when you stop being useful, I’ll just use this Command Spell and have you die to fill the Grail.
            “With that in mind, at least try to keep yourself obedient if you want to stay alive.”
            “—”

            Avenger narrows her eyes and offers no reply.

            The witch smiles.
            The witch smiles, turns her back on the sulking Servant, and walks up the aisle—

(13-1 interlude out.)

            The passage of time is quiet and low-key.
            Because Roswell has already made the decision that there will be no talk of battle today, there is nothing much to do.
            …But because I wouldn’t be able to move much anyway, that’s all right.
            The only thing that I would be able to do in my condition is to exercise my mind, and my mind is as tired as the rest of me.
            So, I sit back and watch the light on the walls turn golden as time passes.

            “—”
            Roswell and Gulcasa are in the kitchen.
            There’s a faint, quiet clatter of crockery as the two of them work.
            Otherwise, the house is silent.
            I am comfortable, which keeps the lack of activity from feeling desolate.

            …At that time.
            Yggdra comes to sit in one of the high-backed chairs of the room.

            She makes no effort to hide it as she looks at me.
            Her considering gaze is like she’s trying to penetrate my thoughts.
            “—”

            “—Now that I think about it, it was easier than I expected to put things together.
            “I always thought that the legends of our sword being passed down to the founder of our dynasty by an angel must be our inflated sense of self-importance distorting history, but—that must have been you.”

            The golden light and the madder red sky.
            For some reason, the princess sitting across from me wants to trace back along old stories of the past.

            “There isn’t any meaning in pretending I don’t know what you’re talking about at this point in time, I suppose.
            “…Yes, the sword that became your Noble Phantasm is something I created.
            “At the time that you were alive, there were a number of artifacts like that floating about—some things that I had made to kill time, because immortality is rather boring, and others to further my own agenda.
            “As I’m sure you will have guessed, that sword was among the latter.
            “—It no longer matters, though.”

            She looks at me for a long moment, and—
            “…I see. You really must love him.”
            —says something rather out-of-place with a smile.

            “…Hm. I don’t suppose I’ve lost the thread of this conversation?”
            “—No, it’s just that I did a great deal of thinking about the war once it was over.
            “You’ve admitted to having pulled the strings behind everything at that time, and you’ve also told me that my Noble Phantasm was simply another of your tools for revenge.
            “At that time, you surely knew what he was planning to do, and yet rather than moving to ensure my survival and freedom, you sacrificed yourself in an attempt to save him.
            “We’re most honest, I think, in our spur-of-the-moment actions.
            “…I wanted to kill him, and charged out on my own, falling into that trap.
            “You saved him, and he stopped fighting to attend to you.
            “Maybe if I’d taken advantage of that moment things would have turned out much differently, but I was paralyzed by the magnitude of what I’d just done and couldn’t.
            “—I think that says quite a lot about all of us, really.”

            She smiles like she’s satisfied.
            Leaning back as if swallowing down more questions.

            “…And you’re all right with all of that?”
            …When I call out to her.
            She turns back towards me with an elegant expression like a tigerlily in bloom.

            “I suppose that if you press me on it, there are more things that I would like to confirm.
            “But—they don’t have much to do with what’s happening now.
            “It would be foolish, clinging to such things when they can only cause harm for everyone involved.”

            “—”
            It’s an odd thing to realize, but it seems as though this girl has matured quite a bit since we saw each other last.
            …It’s an odd thing to realize, because there was no real reason that she would not.

            She stands up.
            She stands and brushes her long hair out with a turn of her wrist.
            She nods to me, and makes her way over to the kitchen with quiet footsteps.

            …It gets noisier.
            I don’t sense any hostility, the noise level just increases as a conversation starts between the three over tonight’s food.
            What’s being said is indistinct, and I’m not bothered to really strain myself to listen in.

            “—”
            I simply close my eyes.

            There’s a brief instant where I remember the phantom pain of being run through on my sword, and the taste of blood surging up from my lungs into my mouth.
            In the end—I might be the only one holding on to those feelings.

(interlude 13-2)

            Against the night.
            Two angels stand on the roof of the church, facing one another.

            “—”
            “—”

            Two paths that will never cross.
            They stand at either end of the highest beam, silent in the cold winter wind.

            The atmosphere is that of a battlefield on the brink of war’s beginning.
            The two angels stare at each other without bothering to suppress their intent to kill, eyes cold as if they no longer have anything to say to each other.

            But the starting gong in the two’s private war will not yet ring.
            …That is—due to the selfish whims of the pair’s Masters.

            It is Caster that finally closes her eyes.
            Rather than a surrender, it is a show of supreme loathing and arrogance, a sign that she is so self-assured as to seal off her own field of vision without fear even in the presence of such an enemy.
            “…But still, I would not have thought that such an inferior creature would merit summoning as a Servant.”
            “—”
            “You, an incomplete caricature of a creature, with no true power or meaning—it’s only fitting that Avenger should be the only class that would accept you.”
            “Keep talking like that and I’ll just kill you.
            “—You know I’m more than capable.”

            Caster opens her eyes.
            Flat amber bores into the shape of the woman standing across the roof from her.

            “…Perhaps.
            “But in this situation, the power of our Masters is also a factor.
            “You should know better than any that your Master is the pinnacle of mediocrity compared with mine—no, even that is a kind overestimation.
            “I shall be frank. Your Master cannot even reach up to the level of my Master’s feet.
            “The thought that you might be able to best me in this state, even at the cost of your own life, is naught but hubris.”

            Avenger lifts her chin in defiance.
            “All this Master, Master, Master.
            “—Even knowing what he plans to use the Grail for, you’re still sucking this guy’s cock, huh? What happened to all that jumping around like a puppy trying to please the gods?
            “Either you’ve gone senile or he’s taken your fangs out.”

            “Huh.
            “A wise dog chooses how and when it bites.
            “Unwise rebellion in such a circumstance will only lead to failure.
            “But, I wouldn’t expect a pitiful mad dog like yourself to realize such a thing, no matter how many times you are beaten.”

            “—”
            The two angels stand as their wills do battle.
            The girl in black armor, and the seraph in white.
            —Two paths that, once diverged, shall never cross again.

            “Ah.
            “—My Master calls me.
            “I, unlike you, am trusted in the manner of tactics, and I must be present for the planning that is to commence.
            “And so—you shall have to excuse me.”

            Caster vanishes in a cloud of golden feathers.
            Moonlight catches on them as they evaporate, sending glittering particles throughout the air.

            …Alone on the rooftop of the church.
            “—A wise dog, huh.”

            The knight all in black turns on her heel and stares up at the moon.
            Like a lonely animal howling.
            The light frames her jagged profile severely, like an angel of death or a gargoyle perched atop the house of god.
            If an angel’s wings are the sign of its divinity, then surely the Astarte clad all in black was born fallen.

            “—There are things that you’ll never be able to understand.”
            Even though the other Servant surely cannot hear her, she speaks in a clear voice.
            Her shadow scatters darkness and dances on the distant ground.

            “In a choice between freedom and slavery—it’s obvious which choice is the right one.”

            The very air shudders at the tone of her voice.
            The girl turns with a movement like a dance step, and disappears into the dark.

(13-2 interlude out.)

            “Thank you for the food.”
            Four voices ring out in unison, and then there is a great clatter of hands being lowered and utensils being picked up.
            Far be it from too many cooks ruining the broth, what is laid out on the table for tonight’s dinner is nothing less than a banquet.

            It appears that while I was resting, the three chefs each managed to navigate the crowded kitchen in order to make several dishes without cooperation or interference from the other two.
            Apparently, the synergy and good maneuvering worked out quite well, as if after several days’ worth of struggling has resulted in the discovery of harmony and balance.
            I can tell who made each dish by looking at it, as amusingly enough their choices in what to cook reflect their personalities quite well.
            Gulcasa, apparently in charge of the main dishes, has laid out three plates of meat—spiced shellfish on a bed of pasta, duck meat baked in herbs and flavored with a lemon-based sauce, and a wide oval dish of all different kinds of meat grilled together with vegetables.
            Regarding the latter dish, I’ve been able to identify pork, beef sirloin, chicken, more duck, crab, and confectionary crab; a sampling of the vegetables included involves baby corn, water chestnuts, and green peppers.
            Roswell, who has taken charge of the side dishes, has laid out one pan of okonomiyaki, a dish of ratatouille, a plate of pot stickers, and a tall stewpot filled with spicy soup that he says is called pozole.
            And Yggdra has contributed a bowl filled with carefully washed mixed berries, a plate of baked and sugared plums and cherries, and a small apple cake.
            …It’s certainly a lot of food, but given that Gulcasa is sitting at this table, I wouldn’t venture so far as to call it overkill.
            The night is very calm and quiet.
            The silence is comfortable, as its cause is simply that everyone is rather busy with just eating.

            …After the meal.
            Roswell gathers up the plates to wash them, and Yggdra gets up as if to go help.

            “—Hmm, it’s a complicated feeling not having done anything.
            “Certainly I’m the least skilled cook out of everyone here, but not even being able to wash dishes is a bit frustrating.”
            “It’s probably useless to just tell you to enjoy it while you can, huh.
            “…Well, it’s not as though I don’t understand.
            “When this is all over, you’ll be on dish duty for a while yet, of course.”

            Gulcasa speaks mildly.
            But his words are still incredibly sobering.

            …After this is all over.
            If he and I can survive through the end of this war, and win.
            …Chances are that this scenery will disappear.

            Because, after all—once this cycle has ended, it will probably be too taxing for Roswell to keep Yggdra as a familiar.
            Even then, it will be a miracle if the both of them survive as well.
            For all four of us to enjoy this kind of scenery again is a wish that in all likelihood can’t be granted.

            …I think that Roswell declared today to be a day of rest specifically because of that.
            I’m lucid, and so even if minimally, I’m able to participate in this scenery free of battles and of care—that way, today will become a shining, bittersweet memory for whoever survives.
            If any of us even do.
            Gulcasa isn’t insensitive enough to the atmosphere to not know this.
            …No, the way that he says things so easily is because of his own nature.
            Even if it tears at the illusion, he can only live in hope.

            …Even though his own memories should point out the impossibility.

            I can’t push myself to stand for fear of falling.
            …But even so, I reach out to cover his hand in mine.
            I can’t let him down gently.
            But—I wish that I could at least protect him from reality when the blow falls.

            Gulcasa gives me a long look.
            And—he turns towards the kitchen.

            “—Roswell.
            “We’re going ahead to bed, so don’t mind us.
            “We can figure out all the important things tomorrow, so just take it easy for tonight.”

            He says so simply, and gets up from the table.
            My Servant lifts me up carefully, and we depart from the stage of the fleeting dream into the scene of a deeper reverie.

            “—”
            “—”
            Gulcasa sets me down on the bed and closes the door.
            I can see him turn the lock.
            …Honestly, Roswell is prudent enough to not come in here after what Gulcasa has said.
            But there’s still no harm in taking precautions and creating a mental barrier between us and the rest of the house.
            We’re alone.
            When Gulcasa turns back toward me, his gaze is hot and intense.
            Just that makes my head feel ready to explode.

            My hands are clumsy as I reach up to untie the ribbon at the front of my dress.
            If my body is going to get any hotter than this, my clothes will only irritate my skin.
            And—more than that, if we’re going to do it anyway, then I really want to feel his body.
            But even though my hands could still manipulate table utensils, I’m utterly defeated by this knot.
            I can’t put enough strength in to undo it, and tugging on it weakly won’t help anything.

            “—Nessiah.”
            When I look up and realize, Gulcasa is standing there.
            His body gives off an intense heat that makes me dizzy.
            The lights are off, and the faint natural light from the half-opened window illuminates his silhouette.
            He rests his hands on my shoulders.
            Just—from that.
            My conscious mind starts to float, and I can feel myself starting to go hard.

            “—I can take care of that.”
            My hazy mind doesn’t register what he means until he kneels at the side of the bed and moves my hands aside to untie my clothes.
            The front of the dress falls open.
            Gulcasa stops with his hands on the mattress on either side of me, and carefully looks at my body as if trying to memorize every detail.
            …I’m probably quite a sight.
            My breathing is rough, and my erect nipples and stiffening penis are probably quite visible against these loose and half-opened clothes.
            I wanted to go slowly and savor each other’s bodies tonight, but now that I’m here with him alone in such a suggestive position, my desire is immediate and terrible.
            …Even now.
            The prana that has been violating every inch of my body is building up.
            I can’t dispel the lumps of energy that belong to the five defeated Servants, which takes up the space where my own natural prana should go and spills over.
            And because my body won’t just stop generating od or processing mana, my real prana stores are building up with nowhere to go.
            So—even after I said all that about things being mutual, I can barely even remember my own words.
            I need to get rid of what’s inside me.
            It’s painful, and suppressing the pain and the arousal is exhausting.
            I need someone to take it away as soon as possible.
            So—just being stared at like this is too much.

            “—”
            Gulcasa stares at me as if all of my thoughts are plain for him to read.
            “…As I thought, we have to start with a little bit of treatment before we get into the real thing—”

            …But still.
            Dizzy, feeling as though swarms of flat insects are rushing through the thin spaces between my muscles and my skin, I do my best to shake my head.
            “—Gulcasa.
            “I said that we’re going to do it right, so—”

            He smiles.
            “I know.
            “—Relax, I’m not going to go against your wishes.
            “This is just foreplay, all right?”

            As I sit still.
            He lifts up my skirts and tells me to hold on to him.
            …And.
            He leans in, and there’s a familiar rough warmth against the head.

            “—”
            I can’t suppress the strangled sounds of pleasure.
            This isn’t like before.
            Last time, Gulcasa went slowly as if savoring the taste of my skin, servicing me gradually until I was about to lose my mind.
            But right now, he is directly attacking the sensitive spot at the bottom of the head, as if trying to force me to orgasm as quickly as possible.
            “—”
            My body wants to squirm in resistance.
            …I know that we’ll continue from here, but my body acts like it’s being tickled and tries to twist away from the intense attack.
            I can only barely keep my wits about me, and my rationality that tells me that Gulcasa’s actions to make me come lightly are not to keep me dissatisfied, but so that we can fully embrace each other.
            But my body only wants pleasure.
            Gulcasa lightly holds my thighs apart and licks relentlessly at the head, a sharp sensation that makes my stomach cramp sweetly from instinctive resistance.
            His tongue must get tired every now and again, because periodically he stops to nibble at the rim, a change in sensation that makes me shiver.
            I can feel his breath against the full length of me, and that’s the unbearable part.
            …The warmth makes me remember the less-intense but more satisfying sensation of being deep-throated, a wet caress all the way down to the root.
            At this rate, I can’t be sure that my hips won’t automatically move in search of that sensation.
            I can’t trust my body, and I can’t control it.
            I grip Gulcasa’s shoulders tightly and try to breathe.

            “Ah—”
            His voice is thick and muffled.
            Even his breathing is ragged now, and my body shudders strongly.
            …Even now and like this.
            Gulcasa’s ministrations are a direct attack meant to make me come as quickly as possible, but they aren’t clinical and measured.
            Even now, his body temperature is climbing sharply, and the strong movements of his tongue are intense with lust and with love.
            He takes just the head into his mouth, and my vision doubles and sways.
            …But if I close my eyes, I feel it far too powerfully.

            “I—!”

            As if taking my attempt to warn him as a cue,
            Gulcasa sucks strongly on just the first two inches of my erection,
            and my mind hits its limits.

            The faint noise I hear is probably my voice.
            I curl in on myself and embrace Gulcasa’s shoulders tightly as I come.

            —The orgasm is very light.
            I let out as much as I can, but it’s only really enough to loosen up my body and clear my head.
            …My body still feels aroused, but the urgency is gone, and I can move freely.
            Able to arrange myself as I like, I sit up and lean back.

            …Ahh, I did it again.
            Gulcasa kneels on the floor, breathing hard.
            At some point he must have made his clothes dematerialize, and thick ribbons of my come are running down his body, hanging from his parted lips.
            Even as the eroticism of that pose goes straight to my penis and makes it curl further up, I can only be ashamed of myself.
            He acts as if he’s all right with such things, but I would hate it if it were me.
            …It feels good on my end, but it must be painful for him to have to deal with that.
            There’s a phantom burning sensation in my throat just from the thought.
            …To banish it, I reach out and wipe his face clean.
            Gulcasa closes his eyes and leans into my touch.
            …The look on his face is closer to tenderness than gratitude, and when I try to take my fingers away, he reaches up to cup my hands with his.

            “—Do you feel better?”
            “I do.
            “But—Gulcasa. I keep telling you, don’t push yourself and drink that if you don’t want to.
            “I’m not—very good at warning you, I know, so—I’d be fine with you switching to your hands instead, next time.”
            …Gulcasa looks up at me.
            A very relaxed expression.
            “You don’t have to worry, okay?
            “I’d much rather swallow it than have you come on my face or something like that.
            “This is what feels best for both of us, and if you ever really did something I hated, I’d talk to you about it afterward so we’d both understand.”
            …He says that, but I still can’t shake off these feelings of anxiety.
            Maybe he reads that on my face, because he smiles at me.
            Direct, kind, loving, and a little bit bashful.

            He gets up off the floor.
            His body uncoils, and he stands up halfway.
            Without giving me a chance to really look at his body, he wraps both arms around me.
            “—”
            Because I can return his embrace easily, I do.
            His skin radiates heat, and even though I can feel his musculature quite acutely in this position, he holds me with effortless tenderness and care.

            “—Keep this a secret, okay?
            “I have to tell you like this because it’s too embarrassing to do it while I’m looking at your expression.”
            Gulcasa says so softly.
            “—I actually do it because I really like it.
            “We can feel and accept each other when I’m inside you, but your body reacts totally differently when I’m giving you head, and I could listen to your voice forever.
            “That goes for when you come, too.
            “So—don’t stress out about it.”
            “—”
            My head goes blank.
            Of course, this time it’s not because of my body building up with too much prana.
            It’s obviously because Gulcasa’s taking advantage of our physical closeness to tell me something ridiculous.
            “You—honestly…”
            “So, um… you don’t have to feel bad when you wind up letting it out when I’m still doing it.
            “I’m not just saying this. If you need proof—”

            I can feel his hand on my arm.
            Gently, he tugs so that I follow him, and rest my palm against his great chest.
            He loosely guides my wrist so that my hand traces the length of his body, and then—

            “Ah.”
            I move my hand the rest of the way down on my own.
            I lightly move my fingers through the curls of his hair to the base of his cock, which is standing up like it’s been sculpted.
            …The shaft is wet.
            While he was doing that, he was apparently so into it that he started leaking precome, and the beads of fluid have run all the way down here—it seems that he wanted to show me this.

            “—”
            It’s in my hand, so I squeeze very slightly and start to stroke it.
            Gulcasa trembles underneath my embrace.
            He shakes with pleasure as I hold him, and his breathing goes uneven.
            …He doesn’t move away, so either he must still be feeling shy or he doesn’t want to risk escaping from my touch.
            His is much bigger than mine, and because his body temperature is normally higher, it’s so hot that I almost worry that my palm might be scalded.
            His voice escapes when I touch the head.
            It’s already quite wet.
            At this rate, I almost have to wonder if he was pleasuring himself while he tended to me.
            Gulcasa’s breath shakes.
            It’s faint, but his erection has begun to twitch lightly in my hand.
            Hiding his face from me, he shudders with tension and arousal.
            It’s in front of me, so I lean in a little bit closer and lick at his flushed earlobe.

            “Ah—”
            Instantly.
            Gulcasa lets out a cute moan, and his hips move shallowly, thrusting at my hand.

            “Ah—no, damn, I can’t make my hips stop—”
            Gulcasa’s breathing is rhythmic.
            As I tighten my grip and continue to stroke, he thrusts to meet my touch.

            “Nessiah—at this rate, I’m—”
            The weakness in his voice is intoxicating.
            As close as we are, the sound really does rumble throughout my body, a hum that makes my penis harden and start to throb.
            “No, I—want to do it inside you—”

            At those words.
            I release the pressure in my hand, gradually slow down the strokes, and let go when my hand comes to a natural stop.
            Gulcasa pulls back from our embrace, breathing deeply, and puts a hand to his chest as if carefully gathering himself.
            …His doing so allows me to look at him.
            He is so hard that his erection draws an upwards arc like mine, looking as if it gets any stiffer it will curl upwards and touch the tense skin of his stomach.

            …Gulcasa sighs.
            He looks at me directly.
            Rather than being unfocused, his gaze is sharp and intense, and it makes my heart jump.
            “—Nessiah.
            “Are you ready to?”

            …As much as I can.
            I smile for him.
            “…Yes.”

            “Go ahead and take that off, and lie down.”
            He gets up and leaves the side of the bed as he says so.
            …I remember that he said he took oil, so that must be what he’s looking for.
            I pull my dress over my head and let it fall to the floor.
            The night air is a little bit cool against my naked body.
            I put power into my legs and move back so that I can lie with my head and shoulders against the pillows.
            When I carefully rest back on the mattress, my legs fold in loose triangles, and I don’t bother to change position.
            This way—should be easier, since I’ll just have to open them later.

            “—”
            Gulcasa is back.
            He sits down heavily so that the mattress shakes slightly.
            He sets a bottle down near my side, and pulls his legs up onto the bed.
            Again, his hands are on either side of my body, and when he leans down over me, I reach and pull him close with both arms.

            Very lightly.
            Like the brush of a butterfly’s wing.
            His lips graze mine, soft and brief contact.
            …He doesn’t move to lock our lips together or to slide his tongue into my mouth, possibly out of consideration for how much I hate the taste of semen.
            Instead—Gulcasa moves down and gently traces a line of kisses down from my throat to my clavicle.
            His hands are on my body.
            Their touch is soft.
            …And—that’s all I need.
            That gentle touch is far more sensual and erotic than any kind of rough handling.
            Warm fingers run over my nipples, and Gulcasa nibbles at my collarbones like a whisper.
            “Ah—nn.”
            My voice comes out like a sigh.
            He moves further down, hands at my waist and lips settling against my chest.

            “Mm—”
            He licks the edge of my areola, and my mind starts to go hazy.
            His tongue rolls my nipple, and I feel it all the way down to my penis.
            The blood throbs in the same rhythm as the way his mouth caresses me.
            Vaguely.
            I’m aware that his hands have left my waist and that there are sounds of plastic moving, but all that’s important is that he keeps kissing me here.

            “Nessiah, I’m going to start getting you ready—”
            “Ah. Go ahead…”
            While I wasn’t paying attention, my legs have already fallen spread.
            Gulcasa’s hand settles between them so that the edge of his thumb lightly brushes the sensitive inside of my thigh, and his finger slides inside me, slick with oil.
            The faint and comfortable scent of olive oil tinges the air that’s already thick with the smell of our sweat and my come.
            Gulcasa straightens up in order to watch what he’s doing, but before I can manage to protest that his mouth has left my chest, he presses inside me to where it feels the best.
            “Ah—hah—”
            I lose the strength in my hips.
            Maybe that’s relaxed all of me, because Gulcasa slides a second finger in almost immediately.
            He moves his hand rhythmically.
            It’s only his hand, and there’s no real force, as he is just carefully making sure my body is accustomed to being penetrated, but my whole body shakes as if he’s thrusting into me with everything he has.
            If I had to try to pinpoint the reason why, it’s that every time he sinks his fingers inside me, he pushes deliberately against the place that’s driving me out of my mind, and it feels so nice that I can’t put up any resistance to the motion—

            But.
            When my erection is aching from the pleasant sensations—, Gulcasa slips his fingers out of me in a soft movement.
            The fog that was settling over my mind dissipates.
            He works the bottle with wet hands, and strokes the oil over himself.
            Even though it’s his own hands, he breathes deeply at the touch, and his face is so flushed that it looks like he’s masturbating in front of me.
            The thought heats up my head, and it’s troublesome.

            “—I can do that for you…”
            But Gulcasa shakes his head, biting his lip as if suppressing something.
            “I’m almost done, and—Nessiah, if you touch me now, I’m gonna come right away—”

            As if to prove his vulnerability, his speech is slipping and becoming less proper.
            …I watch as he runs his hand up and down the length of his penis so that the whole of his erection is shining with oil and precome.
            And, finally—he reaches out and slides his free hand underneath my hips to lift them up.

            “—”
            Gulcasa leans forward.
            His long hair sways as if to make a curtain around our bodies, and with a look of deep concentration on his face, he lines himself up with me.
            “I’m going to—”
            …I nod.
            Like silk.
            He thrusts into me in one smooth, flowing movement.

            “—! Ah—”
            …I can’t breathe.
            My vision is vague, my body is burning, and I can’t breathe properly.
            That’s only natural.
            Gulcasa’s hips are pressed against my thighs and buttocks, and he’s incredibly hot inside me.
            …I’ve missed this sensation for so long.
            He’s inside me.
            I’m honestly so happy that I could cry, and my relief is apparently so strong that my body doesn’t try to reject the foreign object, but rather welcomes him deep inside me.
            “—”
            “I’m—going to start moving.”
            Gulcasa, looking down from above me, tells me so.
            …He is feeling the same as me.
            The faint hints of a smile on his face are more than enough to prove that to me.

            Long strokes.
            The sensation burns and lingers in my fingertips, along my chest and nipples, heavy in my cock.
            Gulcasa presses only against the places that feel good.
            His expression is intense, as if it’s taking all his will to keep from letting go right now.
            The beating of his blood inside me is counterpoint to the rhythm of my own pulse.
            “—”
            He only thrusts into me, gradually building up speed and momentum so that his hips fall into a steady pistoning movement.
            His hands hold my hips tightly, not quite squeezing.
            My senses are so filled with his presence that even his touch there is interpreted as pleasure.

            Simple lovemaking.
            …But that’s really all that’s necessary.
            Gulcasa lifts my hips up further so that my legs naturally fall closer to my body, rising up so that he can push even deeper inside me.
            I’m already going to come any minute just from contact as comfortable and familiar as this.

            It’s been—so long.
            So long since my body has been touched with love.
            It’s not that it feels new, but rather that the familiarity is reassuring, and my defenses are down.
            Because of that, the pleasure is far more intense than usual.

            “Ah—Nessiah, I can’t—”
            “It’s—all right—”

            Gulcasa shakes his head twice as if trying to hold back the inevitable.
            But his hips have already begun to speed up, and the rhythm of his thrusts is in double time.
            The fierce and loving assault on the most sensitive place inside me is too much, and I—

            “Ah—Gulcasa, I—!”
            …I love you.

            His body cleaves to mine.
            His hips rock against mine with something almost like violence, and my body is already starting to arc when he bursts inside me with reckless force.

            …That’s it.
            My thoughts are deafened as I come.

 

            “Ah—hah, ah—”
            I can’t stop shuddering from where I lay in Gulcasa’s arms.
            My breath is ragged.
            My body is covered in sweat and stained with my own fluids, and I can still feel the warmth of his release inside me.
            …His breathing is a wreck too.
            But all we do is hold each other, naked on the rumpled bedsheets.

            …I can’t say anything.
            I’m exhausted.
            I feel more lucid than I have in something like a week, my internal stores nearly back to normal levels.
            …This should hold for another day or two, so long as no other Servants are defeated in that time.
            But far more importantly—I was finally able to love and be loved by Gulcasa again.
            Close, intimate contact.
            I’m resting in the arms of someone who I am absolutely safe with, and it’s so wonderful that this sensation does not even lose out to the ancient memories that I’ve been polishing for so long.

            “—From the beginning, I should have chosen you.”
            “—”
            Gulcasa’s eyes open, and he stares at me as if dumbfounded.

            …Then.
            He smiles radiantly.

            “If that’s how you feel—then just that is enough for me.”

            “…It’s not enough.”
            As grateful as I am for that face, and as happy as it makes me.
            “It’s not enough at all.
            “To make up for everything that I did wrong—I am going to succeed.
            “And after that, we will—finally be able to start up where we left off.
            “It will only be us, and I will never be able to apologize enough for that.
            “But—if all we can do is move forward, then that is all we can do.
            “I love you, and—my feelings may not be as pure as yours, but they’re invincible too.”

            “—”
            Gulcasa watches me with a blank expression.
            …And then, he smiles.
            “…Yeah.
            “You waited for me all this time with those feelings alone to sustain you.
            “I, too—should apologize, for not being able to save you.”

            Like that.
            …I regret my wrongdoing, and he regrets his ignorance.
            We hold each other in the night, naked and honest.
            ……And.
            Safe in Gulcasa’s arms, my mind sinks into sleep—

Chapter Text

            —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—

Chapter Text

(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—

Chapter Text

            —This is the story of someone dear to me.

            In the end, he kept moving simply because he did not know what else to do.
            He could not stand still when so much sacrifice and so much grief had bought his survival up until now, and so he would keep moving.
            Abandoned, betrayed, and having failed to save the people he loved the most—he still had his responsibilities as a ruler.
            And—as long as there were people at his back who would support him and rely upon him, he had no recourse but to plunge forward.

            The trip to the barren lands of the northeast was brutal.
            The princess’ army was in hot pursuit, and the princess herself made as much trouble for him as she possibly could.
            It would lower their effectiveness, but the young emperor had no choice but to leave his generals to guard the path behind him in clusters.
            If he could not complete the ritual and gain a perfect failsafe, then there was no meaning in coming this far.

            It was a combination of stubbornness and fear of letting his loved ones down.

            …Even though he had ordered them all to fall back when necessary.
            He would not know until much later that there were many who stayed and fought until their lives bled out on the blades of the princess’ soldiers, who died for love of him.

            The young emperor reached the old temple in the heart of the wastelands.
            Instructing his men to contain the princess outside, he went in alone and began the ritual that would create a sacrifice.
            …Eventually, there were sounds of fighting, and he was interrupted halfway by a runner who told him that the princess’ backup had already arrived and were fleeing the valley with her.

            The young emperor left the temple in a great charge, but the royal army was already too far away to catch.
            The younger of the twins had attempted to stall them, and had been wounded terribly; his priority had to be her survival.
            …And the ritual couldn’t be left halfway done.
            His mind had been made up already.
            …This ritual would ensure that he should have a last resort, if the princess ever attacked his country.
            The young emperor would gain further power as a demon by his choice, but more importantly, he would be able to accomplish something important with his life and his death if she ever got that far.
            He vaguely foresaw that if such a time came that he must complete this ritual, then all the people he loved would most likely already be dead.
            …If that was the case.
            Then he could give his duties as emperor over to a higher power.
            No one would shoulder such a burden but him.
            He had had more than enough of sacrifices in his name.
            …He was not a greedy conqueror, nor was he an arrogant tyrant.
            The young emperor was a knight at heart, and believed in the creed that would one day make the king of knights the beautiful ideal of all heroes.
            That the ruler of a country exists to lead and protect, and that the ruler must give their entire self to protect the people.

            If the time ever came that the princess had slain all that he loved.
            If the time ever came that the princess pointed her sword past his capital towards the town where he was born and raised, and threatened his people with him the only one left to defend them.
            Then he would gladly surrender his life, in the prayer that his ancestor would answer him with a miracle.

            The young emperor returned to his country.
            One of his dear friends—the knight had died to see him safe, betrayed by kin.
            Two of his people had betrayed him in that battle; the former royal soldier due to a grudge and the knight’s sister for the sake of stopping her brother.
            Many of his soldiers had been slain, and the younger of the twin girls had been brutalized and would not be able to take to the battlefield for quite a long time.
            Still, only a week after the catastrophic battle, the royal army moved out again.
            They headed not for the empire’s border, but for a land far to the west.
            The elder of the valkyrie girls explained to him that the sword, the kingdom’s greatest weapon, could only be fully utilized by a crowned sovereign; the princess must be seeking the sword’s hidden power in order to destroy them once and for all.

            …And so the young emperor mobilized all of his troops that could still do battle, and headed for the scorching lands of the west.
            When he arrived at the holy diocese at the edge of the continent, the princess was already departing for the island that only royal blood could enter.
            …He knew that his valkyrie bodyguard was a royal bastard child, even if she had never explained to him in detail.
            He dispatched her after the princess, while he and his troops would do battle with the princess’ backup so that he could dispatch her personally should she come back unscathed.

            As an effect of the ritual, the young emperor was now more demon than human.
            He trampled the battlefield in a glorious attack, and all of the royal army could barely restrain him in his new power.

            …But the price was that he had unbalanced his body again, and undermined what little stability he had gained over the last three years.
            In the height of battle.
            The young emperor suddenly coughed up blood and began to falter.

            The royal army knew not what was going on, but they at least understood that they had an advantage, and pressed it.
            The young emperor rallied his people and his collapsing body and tried to fight them back, but it was of little use.
            Though the spasms wracking his body were not a complete inversion impulse, on the inside he was a terrible mess.
            …In the end, he simply collapsed.
            His personal guard formed a barricade between him and the advancing royal soldiers, but at that time his sister’s aerial unit arrived.
            As she had many times before, she had sensed the imbalance of his blood, and had come to rescue him.
            …The last thing that the young emperor saw before he passed out was his sister’s face.

            After that, everything was a long and terrible fever dream.
            The prophet who had always been in charge of calming the young emperor’s body was no longer of this world, and so all that he could do was wait for the sickness to end on its own.

            He was too ill to lift his own body for weeks on end.
            …He thought, in his delirium, that the people he loved stood at his bedside and discussed distressing matters.
            He thought that the voices around him disappeared one by one.

            When he finally awoke.
            The young emperor was told by his people that his borders had fallen under the princess’ assault, and that the old general who had trusted in him and that his spymaster had died as heroes, fighting to keep the empire safe.
            The troops remaining to him were the two valkyrie sisters, both of whom were healthy enough to do battle; his master of ballistics, who was hard at work arming the castle for a final assault, using the magical weapons confiscated from the long-ago feuding magicians and a theoretical formula drafted by the departed prophet; and his sister, who was still in the field, trying to save the civilians.
            He was told that a saint had risen amongst the common people, and attempted to gather all those with able bodies in an effort to drive out the royal army.

            The princess had slaughtered her and all of her soldiers, not even caring that she fought against untrained militia with no real knowledge of how to swing a sword.

            His sister was still out in the field, doing what he would have done and fighting for the sake of the people.
            The young emperor, not quite well enough to ride forth and aid her, paced the corridors of his obsidian castle.
            He ordered evacuation plans drawn up, contacted the distant city where he had been born, and had confirmation that the trade city would accept the refugees.
            He organized his forces for the battle that would surely come, and made sure that the three women who remained with him understood their roles.
            At the same time, he paced and he prayed.

            …Finally.
            A messenger from the front lines reached him.
            His sister’s forces had been defeated, he was told.
            Every soldier had fought brilliantly to her death, he was told.
            His sister was among the slain, he was told.

            He bowed his head.
            The young emperor closed his eyes and dismissed the messenger as kindly as he could.
            …He waited for the sound of her footsteps to disappear, and allowed his body to bow down in grief, his voice to warp with tears.

            She had still been little more than a child, although she hated being called one.
            She had had too many bitter experiences of being defined by her youth, and assumed to be little more than a burden because of it.
            But she had had a long life ahead of her.
            …She had spent years homeless, searching for him, without even the power of her blood to protect her; they had crossed paths and not realized each other’s identities and gone their separate ways, and even when the prophet had brought them back together they had gone on in ignorance for quite some time.
            It should have been obvious, now that he thought about it.
            They looked quite alike, and even his sister had never put the truth together.
            The prophet had theorized once that it was a side effect of the seals on their blood, something like brain damage that prevented the realization from taking place.
            She had had three years at his side, but it wasn’t enough.
            They should have had longer together, grown powerful at each other’s side and led the country with the brand of their power.
            She was the only blood relative he had ever had who valued him without asking for anything in return.

            Three years wasn’t enough.
            Three years of peace, and it wasn’t enough.
            Wasn’t that what all of this had been for?
            A warm summer evening, a comfortable place with friends and loved ones, a sense of trust like that fleeting dream—
            But no matter how much he reached out for that dream, it kept vanishing like soap bubbles.

            How much of this conclusion was inevitable?
            How much of this conclusion had he caused directly?
            The young emperor was tired of fighting, tired of thinking, and the blame weighed him down and threatened to douse the fire in his heart.
            He had lost friends, family, those who relied on him above all else, the person he had loved more than anything in the world—
            And he grieved for them, and he cursed his own powerlessness, and he cursed the foolish girl who blindly carried out her birthright of destruction.

            His face was hard and tearstained as he gathered his men and confronted the princess’ army from atop the city gates.

            The girl stood on the distant ground and called to him to surrender unconditionally.
            That if he did as he was told, she would no longer harm his citizens.
            He heard the implicit threat like a blade against his throat.
            …What of his soldiers, then?
            Did she simply expect him to bow down for her to let her cut off his head, and take his place to run this country into the ground again?

            He told her to leave his land or die.
            When she tried to protest, questioned if he found her untrustworthy, he cut her off.
            They had nothing to say to each other.
            He had attacked her country; this was hard fact that could not be changed.
            To punish him, she had razed his.
            …And so there was nothing left to say.
            She could turn and leave, or she could finish the job, but he would never give up.

            The battle started after that.
            The young emperor immediately began directing the evacuation of the castle.
            …If the princess was able to break through the gates somehow, there would be very little time to get the civilians out afterward.

            But before he could progress to evacuating the people of the town, there was a great explosion from the direction of the city gates.
            …The princess’ army was already spilling into the capital.

            The two girls waded into the streets to occupy them.
            From the castle steps, the young emperor directed the exodus of his people.
            To give an example, it was quite like he was trying to hold a bursting dam closed with his own two hands.
            Too many of his people were dead, and the princess’ army was still at near to full strength.
            He had to prioritize the civilians before he moved to aid his soldiers, but without his backup it was inevitable that they would not hold for long.

            And finally, the younger of the twins perished under the princess’ sword.
            The elder of the valkyries, the only person he had left to stand at his side, made to gather the soldiers and attack her sister’s murderer in a suicide charge, but he called to her from the castle steps.
            She was wild with grief and responded rebelliously to his orders to fall back, but when he mentioned that it was time to fall back on their last resort, she became subdued and obeyed him.

            The princess’ troops chased them into the empty palace.
            The young emperor gathered his men to hold them at bay while the valkyrie regrouped her platoon, but with only his soldiers against a full army, he was not able to hold out for long.
            …Right at the point that it was becoming too dangerous to remain in the princess’ way, the valkyrie rallied to his defense, and he had his troops fall back in order to give first aid and reform the battle lines.
            But as it had been with him, the valkyrie could not hold the princess’ army back indefinitely.
            When he sensed that she was in trouble, he gave his injured troops orders to flee the castle without him, and ran to aid his last surviving friend.

            …Before he could reach her, the girl fell.

            She called out to him in a fading voice.
            Her words contained no bitterness or blame.
            She thanked him warmly for sheltering her and showing her kindness.
            She asked him to complete the revenge against the kingdom that had abandoned her, as she and her sister no longer could.
            …The valkyrie passed away, and finally left him on his own.

            His body wanted to bow down and collapse.
            The despair was already so heavy that he could not possibly raise his head ever again.
            …All that he had loved was ruined now.
            The people that he depended on to be able to make it through each day had all gone beyond his reach, and he was finally alone, as he had not been since his earliest memories.
            He couldn’t bring them back with victory.
            …He could not see himself being able to survive without them.

            But—he still had the power left to avenge them.
            And if he fell here, the people would be helpless against the princess’ invasion.
            So the young emperor held tightly to his weapon and raised his head.

                        “I won’t accept an end like this.”

            He spoke those words, and relinquished all control over his demon’s blood.
            In that moment, the empty castle ignited, becoming a mirror of the barren, burning plains that he had always held in his heart.
            He could no longer think.
            All of the young emperor’s senses were warped and vague, and only the physical sensations of battle were clear.
            He roared like a beast, or like his ancestor the demonic dragon, and twisted and fought against the army that even now attempted to strike him down.

            …But even relinquishing all trace of his humanity, the young emperor was just one man fighting against an entire army.
            The princess and her soldiers scored his body with their weapons, painting the castle floor with his blood and damaging several vital organs.
            …This time, there would be no one coming to save him, and his body and his mind and his heart were all irreparably broken anyway.
            The young emperor could feel his body beginning to shut down, his vision going indistinct and his breathing coming with difficulty.
            But that was just as well.
            The young emperor gathered what was left of his strength and ran into the shrine at the depths of the castle.

            …The ritual he had enacted in the distant battleground made it so that one sacrifice in this shrine would resurrect his ancestor.
            With the princess’ escape, the young emperor had not allowed anyone else to shoulder the burden of becoming the sacrifice, and had taken on the role personally.
            As long as he died at the altar before the abyss, the demon god would be revived.
            His ancestor would rise up and reclaim this land, destroy the enemy, and rule where he no longer could.

            He carried his failing body towards the abyss.
            …But the princess followed him into the shrine alone, still grasping her sword.

            He was dying, and the pressure of the god’s presence made it difficult for her to move.
            It would barely constitute a battle, and certainly did not match the level of the carnage they had wrought against each other before.
            They brandished their weapons and grappled with each other feebly, until finally she struck him down.

            His body collapsed in the middle of the shrine.
            He felt suddenly awake, and stared at the princess from where he knelt on the ancient stone.

            The princess let her sword come to rest beside her.
            With a pained expression, she spoke to him.
            She spoke of how she fought for the world, and her desire to use her power to protect.
            An odd—sensation.
            It had only just occurred to him that she was still very young, probably about the same age that he had ascended the throne.
            …She had not had a mentor to explain to her the nature of power, nor had she been able to grow up knowing the varied shapes of injustice as he had.
            She might desire peace and justice, but her upbringing in such a skewed culture was getting in her way and preventing her from using her power effectively.
            He wondered how long it would take for her, and how many times that she would lose her way as she tried to do right by the world she had conquered.
            All that he knew for certain was that her power was great, and that as she was now, he would not be able to come to terms with her in the time he had left.

            The young emperor smiled.
            Perhaps he took the princess off guard, because she fell silent and stared at him with a troubled expression.
            The smile on his face was gentle and sad.
            It was slightly wry, as though he mocked himself and simultaneously laughed at the irony in her earnestly proclaiming ideals that they shared.

            …He closed his eyes and sighed in the very end.
            He had run through the days of his life with all his strength.
            He had done everything that he could think of to achieve his goals, obtained many things, and lost many things.
            Feelings of frustration and sadness still lingered over the ruin of this end.
            Even so.
            Perhaps it was stubborn and foolish, but he thought in the end that there were things that he could be proud of having created, and fixed, and loved.
            He had wanted to be with his people for longer.
            He had wanted to love everyone around him so much more, and help so many more people.
            Had he managed to do enough?
            Had he been able to make anything really change for the better?
            …He had run through his twenty years without turning back even once.
            It was impossible to know anything for sure.
            …He grieved for the lives lost, and his own weakness and inability to save his people.
            But even in his frustration and his pain.
            He did not want to believe that everything he had done was mistaken.

            …He had lived, and he prayed that something of his efforts, of his feelings for the people would survive him.
            That his love would leave marks on the world as surely as the footprints he had tread.
            He had done the best that he knew how.
            He was proud to have met and loved all those who had gone before them.
            …If nothing else, he was glad for that.

 

            The young emperor closed his eyes and died.
            As if setting down some great burden, the young emperor died with a smile on his face.

 

            “—Ah.”
            …I push myself into a sitting position as soon as I wake.
            My face is already wet with tears, and even if I wipe them away, they simply won’t stop.
            This isn’t good.
            It isn’t good, but warm tears keep falling down my cheeks like rain.

            “That dream was—”
            My voice is shaking.
            Noticing that makes me feel like I’m detached from my body.
            It feels like I’m making an observation about someone else.
            That’s how much of a given it is for my voice to shake right now.

            I don’t know what I’m feeling.
            Watching Gulcasa’s dying face, seeing him hold on to his pride and give up on all the things he dreamed of and wanted to do—
            Part of it is anger at him, I think.
            I’m angry, because I don’t want him to say or think such stupid things.
            But there is also guilt, because he wouldn’t have met such an end if not for me, and deep sadness. It’s all a great agonized mess, and it feels like my heart is tearing itself apart.

            My body feels light and alert, and I am warm and in a safe place.
            But even though my physical condition is much better than it has been in a very long time, it hurts so much that I just don’t know what to do.
            …Because Gulcasa always has to be shining brightly.
            Because if Gulcasa can’t live with the pride and majesty that I have always loved about him, I won’t know what to do anymore.
            Selfishly.
            Even though I know how things turned out after my death, the Gulcasa in my heart was always standing tall and unbroken, a symbol of shelter and of charity.
            He should have—had more time.
            It’s unfair to him and to everyone, the way that I have him now.
            It’s stupid to believe so, maybe, but I can’t help but feel as though Gulcasa would have been savior to so much if he had lived a full life.
            He is alive now in a manner of speaking as my Servant, but he won’t be anyone’s savior but mine ever again.
            I’m selfish, and so that is enough for me.
            …But even so—I know it’s not fair.

            “—I’m so sorry.”
            I hide my face in my hands and finally say it out loud.

            Those words are all I have to offer.
            …I know that it isn’t enough.
            The star that disappeared from the sky won’t ever return.
            But even so.
            All I can do is acknowledge that what happened was wrong.

            “…Nessiah.”
            By the time I realize it, Gulcasa is standing in the doorway.
            I’m sitting up in bed, in my room in Roswell’s house, and Gulcasa has come back in after being absent for my awakening.
            …Oh.
            This is bad.
            I don’t want him to see the state I’m in and ask questions.

            “…Nessiah.”
            But it’s too late to try to hide my face now.
            ……I must really be a sight, with my face all red and sticky with the traces of tears.
            I don’t know what to say.
            …I’m tired, and confused because I’ve barely woken up, and anyhow the dream is still so vivid that I don’t know if I can actually come up with some kind of passable excuse.

            “—”
            But Gulcasa doesn’t ask.
            He crosses the room and puts his arms around me, holding me tightly.
            My cheek and my arm are pressed against his chest, and I can vaguely feel the sensation of his heartbeat against my fingertips.

            Gulcasa is very solid.
            He is here with me now, half-incarnate.
            He is half-alive.
            Even if it’s only a temporary body made by my prana and the Grand Grail’s pre-prepared vessel, it is solid and warm.
            The arms that support and cradle me are as kind and as implacable as they have always been.

            “Hey.”
            Gulcasa lifts me up with one arm and touches my face with his free hand.
            He touches my cheeks softly but firmly, and wipes them dry.
            His facial expression is almost neutral, but there’s a little bit of tension at the corners of his mouth that betrays his worry.

            “…I’ll be all right.”
            I don’t think that I could adequately explain what I’m feeling right now, so this is really all the explanation that I can give.
            I wrap both my arms around Gulcasa’s shoulders, lean against him, and close my eyes so that I won’t have to look at his expression.

            “I see…”
            Even so, his voice sounds pensive, like he’s not sure how far he can get away with prying.
            Perhaps he already has some inkling of why I’m acting like this, as he’s experienced some of my memories in his dreams as well.
            “—Anyhow, would you like to take a bath? I think you might feel better if you can get clean.
            “You went out like a light in the middle of the trip home, so all I could do last night was sponge you off a little so that you wouldn’t get sick from sleeping all dirty.”

            “…Oh, that isn’t a bad idea.”
            I try to smile.
            Gulcasa lets me down, and I pick up a new set of clothes and head to the bathroom on my own two feet.

            There isn’t enough time to really take a soak, but even just being able to wash my hair and my face is refreshing.
            I stretch out the muscles in my legs, towel off, and get dressed.

            Downstairs.
            Gulcasa and Roswell are in the kitchen.
            “—Where is Yggdra?”

            Roswell comes to the counter and says good morning, and smiles bitterly.
            “She’s still recovering in the summoning circle downstairs.
            “I’m going to bring some food for her later, but for right now I don’t want to push her.
            “She was still injured when we went to rescue you, and the injuries on top of that were really too much for her to deal with.
            “……Even once the outside of the wounds heals, I think that just moving around and staying in solid form is going to be all that she can handle for a while. We’re not going to be able to assist you in the battle tonight.”

            I breathe out.
            Honestly, it’s about what I was expecting.
            But my body is in good condition right now, and I have allies who will fight at my side nevertheless; this is all I can ask for.

            “…Oh. Come to think of it, where is—”
            I haven’t seen her yet.
            But her presence is in this house despite that, so it seems odd that I haven’t stumbled across her until now.

            As if understanding my question even when I haven’t finished it, Roswell smiles a little and points to the living room.
            I turn around.
            Avenger—Meria is stretched out on the sofa.

            She lies on her back with a blanket thrown over her.
            She’s tall, so she takes up the full length of the sofa with her head and shoulders cushioned on the pillows propped against one armrest and her feet crossed at the ankles on the other.
            There must not have been nightwear that fit her, because even though she’s asleep she’s wearing a black sleeveless shirt and a pair of long pants.
            They must have been hers already, because I really get the feeling that Roswell and Yggdra’s clothes would be too small for her.

            Meria sleeps as if she hasn’t got a care in the world.
            …That’s audacious.
            She wasn’t collapsing from exhaustion like me, or like Gulcasa had been the time that he slept on the very same couch, but she still decided to lie down and sleep on a complete stranger’s furniture like she had no fear.
            I suppose that with Yggdra out of commission, she judged that Roswell wouldn’t be able to do anything to her and that Gulcasa wouldn’t harm an allied Servant anyway.
            That’s a sensible judgment to make, but there’s also a sense of flippancy and a kind of bravery to knowingly making oneself vulnerable in an unfamiliar environment.
            …I don’t think I would be able to do the same.

            “It’s going to be a while until breakfast, so you can go ahead and wait wherever you like.”
            Gulcasa tells me this, so I sit down in a chair in the living room and wait.
            The atmosphere is relaxed and easy.
            The passage of time is slow and gentle.
            …Even so, I can feel the seconds slipping by very acutely, and it feels as if sand is sliding quietly into the lower half of an hourglass.

            I can feel a pulse at my fingertips.
            The pressure in my body is only a vague echo of what it was yesterday in the false holy land, but it’s there nonetheless.
            The summoning has to happen tonight at the latest—or to be precise, early tomorrow morning, after the date changes but before the sun rises.
            If not, the prana of the defeated Servants will disappear from inside me as the Grand Grail goes back into hibernation, and the Servants who are not anchored to this world with a contract and sufficient prana will be drawn back to the Throne.
            …I can well imagine what will happen if that comes to pass.
            Hector will come to find me again, and will likely wait until the opening of a seventh Holy Grail War, to use me as the vessel again and again until he is satisfied.
            …And even so, I don’t think that he would let us wait out the night if we wanted to take our chances.
            Roswell and Yggdra cannot aid us, but when the time comes, I will head to the Tohsaka workshop of my own free will, and take the chance to obtain my wish.

 

            …It takes a while for breakfast to be finished, but eventually a grand feast is laid out upon the table.
            As apparently Yggdra will not be joining us, there are only four places set.
            I’m not sure how I’m supposed to go about waking Meria, but she courteously saves me the trouble while Roswell and Gulcasa are still bustling about the kitchen and table.

            “—Nice service,” is her first comment, which makes Roswell turn very red.
            I nod to her in mock seriousness.
            Meria sits leaned forward with her elbows on her knees and a leer on her face, and again I can’t help but find her cavalier air incredible.
            If I hadn’t been ill at the time, I don’t know if I would have started off this much at ease in this household.
            “Yes.
            “Saber’s Master shares a few proclivities with my Gulcasa, and as you might imagine, living in a household with not merely one but a pair of house husbands has its perks.”
            “—Hmm.”
            The tall Servant folds her arms and nods with a straight face.
            “I see, I see.
            “So ever since you’ve gotten allies, you got pampered, huh?—Yeah, that must’ve been nice.”

            I lift myself to my feet carefully.
            The entire house is filled with the scent of warm breakfast.
            Time is continuing to pass, but—

            “…It is indeed nice.
            “So, even if it’s a little bit late—we’re finally fulfilling Gulcasa’s offer to cook for you, and extending the treatment to you for today.”

            It feels as though we take our time with the meal, and yet at the same time it is over very quickly.
            The dishes are taken to the sink to be cleaned, and even though I know that the food was delicious, the taste does not linger.

 

            “—Then.
            “In the time remaining before the final window of action—we need to come up with some kind of plan.”

            The air changes.
            Roswell is still washing the dishes, but the silhouette of his shoulders is tense.
            Both Gulcasa and Meria look at me.
            Gulcasa sits still and looks directly at me, and Meria remains in a casual leaned-back position, her gaze focused at me while she tips her head back.

            “…My guess is that by the time we arrive at the Tohsaka workshop after midnight, the enemy will already be there.
            “He will probably know that I won’t want to waste the chance to have my wish granted either, and may not even bother trying to undo the boundary field upon this place because of that.
            “Our enemies will be Caster and her Master.
            “Caster is an archangel, and a very powerful one, but aside from that…”

            “—If you need to know about her abilities, I can tell you.”
            Meria suddenly volunteers the information.
            Her disposition has changed, and there is no playfulness or sarcasm to her voice and her pose now.
            “She’s a top-class Servant, as you might be able to guess just by looking at her.
            “She’s oriented towards magecraft rather than physical combat, but her defense is still very strong and can’t be overwhelmed except by weapons and Noble Phantasms that exceed a certain rank.
            “Furthermore, she has three Noble Phantasms—her weapon, her armor, and the spell that serves as her ultimate technique.
            “I’ve fought her before, and not just as Servants. We knew each other when we were alive.
            “—She and I were born from the same existence.”

            Her gaze is bitter.
            Meria does not look at me or at Gulcasa, but glares into the distance as if confronting her rival directly.

            “—Look, even if you weren’t my Master now, I wouldn’t be able to leave that woman alone.
            “From the moment that I was born—no, even longer than that, she’s done nothing but deny my right to exist.
            “I don’t care so much about inscrutable relics like the Holy Grail, but she’s the only one I can’t let run around.
            “The last time we fought wound up in something like a draw, but… this time won’t be like before.”

            She growls silently with the weight of her grudge.
            …Hmm.

            “As for Caster’s Master.
            “…Well, he’s my enemy, so I know his capabilities the best.
            “He is already an existence about on parallel with a Servant because of his age and abilities.
            “I myself come from the same general era as him, but I’ve lost my original powers and been weakened by being in captivity for so long.
            “While I was fighting and struggling to make my way in the world of mortals, he’s had a comfortable seat in the realm of the gods. The most frustrating thing is that he didn’t spend that time resting on his laurels, either, but increasing his political and magical power, and developing new techniques through state-of-the-art materials and experiments.
            “So—while I hate to admit it, I’m not really a match for him by myself.
            “If I were at the height of my powers and actually had some of my artifacts instead of just my self-developed magecraft, I might stand a chance.
            “—Or even if I had a Diviner, I might be able to somehow fight my way through his offensive techniques to be able to strike him down.
            “But I don’t, so I simply have to rely upon my Servants or try to prepare a countermeasure in the time that I have.”

            …I can’t help but sigh.
            “Nessiah.
            “—You’re physically able at least, so…”
            Even though he knows better, Gulcasa says so half-heartedly as if trying to encourage me.

            “It’s no use.
            “—Honestly, even if I were overestimating Hector’s ability level, I don’t know if I would be able to face him the way that I am now.
            “I need to arm myself mentally, or I might break down the instant the two of us come face to face on the battleground.”

            I feel slightly nauseous, just admitting that much.
            But it’s true.
            The same way that the gods who carelessly threw me away are a source of trauma for me, that man also holds thrall over me mentally.
            He treated me as a toy to abuse at the same time that things first fell apart, and then he deliberately searched for me so that he could use me as a convenient experiment after my mistakes in Gulcasa’s time.
            He defiled me endlessly, all for his entertainment.
            …If I am to be honest with myself—it is a blessing above all blessings that he did not harm me while I was unconscious, the last time that I was his captive.
            If I had awakened to discover traces of assault, I might have broken down for good.

            To go against that man in a deliberate confrontation means knowing that I will be subject to the same treatment all over again if I lose.
            That’s frightening.
            Even the thought that he might lay the palm of his hand on my skin makes me feel like vomiting.
            I don’t want to go through that again. I am tired of being hurt, of feeling dirty and wanting to shred my mind rather than be aware of even one more moment of his torture.
            …And on top of the fear itself is the worry that my fear might paralyze me.
            I would do anything to not fall into his hands again, and I cannot risk that my body might suddenly refuse to obey me or that screaming fear might cut off my reason if we were to come into contact again.
            The last time I was alone in his presence, I lost consciousness just because of that fear.

            So—giving myself special means of attack and defense has more meaning than just making sure that I might be at a level of power where victory against him is possible.
            Without some manner of reassurance that I will not absolutely lose, I cannot stand against Hector mentally.

            So—it would have been preferable to go into the battle with as many allies as possible.
            Caster will take time and effort, and I may have to leave dispatching her to one ally while going ahead to finish things.
            If so, then I need both a means of arming myself, and someone beside me to fight with me and to protect me if I collapse mentally.
            Roswell and Yggdra would have been superb for that role.
            With her innate magic resistance, Yggdra at her full strength could have deflected at least some of Hector’s magecraft and provided a distraction, and as a healer, Roswell would have been able to support me mentally and emotionally until I could join the battle again.
            But Yggdra is incapable of battle after receiving so many injuries.
            Even if she regenerated as much as possible today, I know that she would only be at a quarter capacity of her full power in the very best case scenario.

            But this isn’t as terrible as it could have been.
            Because—Gulcasa and I are not alone.
            Meria is with us.
            Both of my shoulders are branded with the holy mark.
            Carrying them both—granted this new pair of wings, I will have to see for myself if I will be able to fly… huh.

            “…Neither Gulcasa nor Meria possesses innate magic resistance.
            “To begin with, Meria’s irregular class means that she doesn’t have any innate skills.
            “But, even if the situation is not ideal, it is far better than the worst case scenario.
            “—Two battles will have to be fought tonight.
            “I am a more competent magus than that Yellma.
            “Even serving as Master to both of you, you are at your maximum capacity as Servants.
            “Therefore—one of you will have to handle Caster, while one of you will come with me in order to confront Hector.”

            …If I were to be honest.
            Gulcasa is best suited to battle Caster.
            He is the stronger Servant, and besides, as long as his enemy is a Servant—no, as long as his enemy is armed with a Noble Phantasm or a grand ritual, he can blow it away with his greatest trump card and defeat his opponent.
            Meria also has an extremely powerful Noble Phantasm, but she might have trouble matching Caster in a battle of endurance.
            Even with my power boosting her abilities, she might not be able to defeat Caster.

            All the same, this is opposite from the feelings of my Servants.
            Meria has a personal grudge against Caster, and less investment in fighting Hector.
            Gulcasa has enmity towards Hector for abusing me, and to him Caster is just another opponent.
            I can’t be sure that they will obey my judgment.

            “…Anyhow, we can decide that part later.
            “Once I begin the Heaven’s Feel, I would be extremely vulnerable to attack, so it is important to defeat both Caster and her Master.
            “There are still only five Servants defeated, and at least six need to be processed to make the Holy Grail actually usable.”
            Seven would be ideal, of course, but I can’t force Yggdra to just relinquish the prana that makes up her physical vessel.

            “Then—for the actual battle against Caster’s Master, what will you do?
            “If he’s that powerful, then just overwhelming him with two against one might not work unless there’s a real plan.”
            Meria points out the truth bluntly.

            “…I know.
            “There isn’t time to circle around in front of him and lay traps in the Tohsaka workshop, as he may have a familiar there for observation or even be there in person already.
            “…No, I need a weapon that can compete with that man.
            “It’s just frustrating that I have to rely on a method that’s so unreliable.”

            “Nessiah?”
            Gulcasa is staring at me.
            …It appears that I will have to be more specific.

            “—Look, my strengths as a magus all lie in innovation and invention.
            “I don’t have the time or the freedom to create an entirely new spell or branch of magic in time for the fight, so that leaves me with only the path to prepare an artifact.
            “…And materials in this age that has already departed from fantasy are weak and subpar. Even if I were able to get the highest quality of pure metals and jewels, I require orichalcum and mithril, and pure gemstones that have already been treated multiple times and imbued with bountiful prana; I would need blueprints and magical herbs to use in tempering, and the tools of a forge.
            “There’s no way that I could get my hands on things like that at this day and age. Back in the time of Ancardia, I had a temple that was filled with appropriate materials, but now I don’t even have so much as my own atelier. I couldn’t even create my own workshop here, in another magus’ territory.
            “Which leaves me with one path.”

            While Gulcasa and Meria continue to watch me curiously, I call out to Roswell.

            “Is Yggdra in the condition where she will be able to manifest herself?”
            Roswell turns the sink off and stares at me as if bewildered.
            “—Probably, but she won’t be able to leave the basement yet…”
            “It’s all right; as long as she can take solid form, she doesn’t even have to leave the summoning circle.
            “If I want this to work, I need a reference.”
            “…?”
            Roswell tilts his head to the side.
            I stand up.
            Time is already running out, and doubtless I’m going to need some rest time between this endeavor and our departure.

 

            “—Eh, my Noble Phantasm?!”

            Yggdra stares at me with wide eyes.
            I stand across from her in the basement, with Gulcasa and Meria on either side of me and Roswell watching from the stairwell.

            “I believe that I will be able to take it out, but using it would be impossible…”
            “That’s fine.
            “…I just need to be able to look at it for a while.”

            “Nessiah, what are you doing?”
            There is suspicion in Gulcasa’s voice even as he asks, so I’m sure he must have some idea already.
            But the others surely don’t understand, and it wouldn’t do well to keep this a secret when I may need help.

            “If I can’t create a weapon from scratch, my only option is to start with a copy of something I already know how to make.
            “—If you’ve fought the Riders or against Lancer, you might have seen that all of their Masters were capable of derived forms of projection, which has given me the idea.”
            “—Projection?”
            Roswell sounds entirely dumbfounded.
            I’m certain that a magus of his standing at least knows what projection is, and so that must not be what’s confusing him.

            “I have the appropriate Magic Circuit, but I’m not any good at it, so I can use all the help I can possibly get.
            “I just need some practice time.”

            “But—wait.”
            Roswell shakes his head.
            “Projection is creating an object from the magus’ mental image.
            “As long as imagination and belief are strong enough, there shouldn’t be any problems, but…”
            “That’s going by an ordinary standard.
            “I am capable of projection magic, but there isn’t any way that I could ever work it successfully—it’s a matter of my nature being incompatible.
            “I’m a maker. I create real artifacts, real things. My magic depends on absolute and intimate knowledge of every detail of a thing I work with, down to each individual material it’s composed of.
            “So unlike an ordinary projection magus, who would be battling their own mentality and Gaia trying to deny the object they have made, I will instinctively deny an object unless it is duplicated perfectly—and sometimes even then.
            “As a creator, I cannot project objects of pure imagination solidified into prana because as long as I know that they are not real, I will deny them from my own subconscious.
            “Therefore.
            “If I wish to rely upon such an unstable trump card as projection, I must strive for the greatest possible degree of verisimilitude, through practice with the actual object before my eyes.”

            “—”
            Silence from my audience.
            …Somehow it feels judgmental, as if I’m being accused of the sheer stupidity of my course of action.
            I know it’s stupid without their telling me so.

            “—And so you’re going to try projecting Saber’s Noble Phantasm as your weapon to use against Caster’s Master.”
            Meria says so, as if to confirm it.
            She whistles softly when I don’t deny her words.
            “Well, I guess nobody can accuse you of lacking confidence.”

            Yggdra shakes her head.
            “…According to our previous conversations—Nessiah was the one to create my Noble Phantasm in the first place.
            “If he has that level of power, then I would expect that this is a natural course of action for him, and not overconfidence or disrespect towards Heroic Spirits in general.”

            “Hmm, is that so.”
            Meria keeps looking on in a nonplussed fashion.

            “—I will cooperate.”
            Yggdra says so definitively.
            “I believe that that is fair of you to ask, as we’re allies but I cannot actually fulfill the terms of the alliance and be of help in the final battle.”
            She hesitates.
            “…Under the circumstances, I would even consider lending you the Noble Phantasm itself, but… I believe that as it has manifested as my Noble Phantasm, it’s no longer connected with you.
            “Under such conditions, only I should be able to wield it, and even if one of my ancestors were to be summoned into this war alongside me, they wouldn’t be able to activate it if they held it.”

            “That’s approximately my understanding of things, too.”

            I sit down on the floor.
            Yggdra sits down cross-legged in front of me and holds her hands out flat, as if mimicking the lotus position.
            Her great broadsword—the Gran Centurio appears balanced atop her hands.

            “—This is going to take a great deal of concentration.
            “I’m going to be at this for a while, and so I’m sorry to impose in this way, but I need either Meria or Gulcasa to remain here with me.
            “That is—if I become exhausted and don’t realize it, I will probably need someone to steady me before I collapse, and anyway I will need someone to monitor my physical condition so that I don’t drain myself too much.
            “I will lose track of time after this, and so someone will need to stop me at around the time dinner preparations begin.
            “I do need to eat lightly in preparation for the battle, but I may be nauseous for a while after this procedure.”

            As I give out instructions, I notice that Gulcasa is staring at me with something like horror in his eyes.
            His face is extremely pale, and his fists are clenched tightly.

            “…Nessiah.”
            Even the tone of his voice is strange.
            “When you say that you need someone to monitor your physical condition, you don’t mean…”
            And for some reason, his question trails off there.
            Gulcasa seems incredibly uneasy for some reason.
            His eyes are very wide, he is white-faced, and he does not seem to know how he should shift his weight.

            “…?
            “If you’re asking to make sure that there’s not going to be any undue physical stress on me, then my only answer is that there shouldn’t be.
            “I’m not so unskilled a magus that I would do myself a serious injury in practice. I’ll just be concentrating so intensely that I won’t be able to notice if something happens, and so I need someone to alert me if there’s any sudden change.”

            “—That’s not exactly it.”
            Gulcasa evades my gaze with a complicated expression.
            “It’s because—this sword is…
            “Let me rephrase my question. Projecting this sword in perfect detail—isn’t going to cause you physical harm, will it?”
            A soft question like he’s begging me to tell him no.
            ……Oh.
            That’s what this is about.

            I try to smile in reply.
            …I’m an idiot.
            If Gulcasa is so worried about this that he looks like he’s going to be sick, then something must have happened to give him cause to worry so much.
            “Again—there shouldn’t be.
            “I’m not recreating the sword. I don’t have the time or the materials, and the toll on my body would be far too stressful for me to be able to go into battle immediately afterward.
            “Besides, a newly created Gran Centurio would lack the power of a duplication, which would defeat the purpose.
            “It’s projection, so I’ll just be constructing a fake copy of it.”

            …Gulcasa doesn’t look completely convinced.
            But I suppose that’s only reasonable, from his perspective.
            …I can’t know how he felt, if he saw that in my memory.
            I can’t know, but—seeing the anxiety on his face now makes me regret that he had to witness something that gruesome.

            “—So then, I guess you’re going to want to stay here and look after him?”
            Apparently attempting to get the discussion back on track, Meria turns to Gulcasa.
            …But Gulcasa shakes his head minutely with a pained smile.
            “…I couldn’t. I would be too afraid to watch and would intervene right away.
            “You should watch him instead.
            “—Because you’re like we are—well, I’d be able to relax if you did it.”

            Gulcasa goes back up the stairs as if he’s running away.
            …Ah.
            I kind of want to go after him, but I know it’s useless.

            Meria tilts her head to the side.
            “—What was that all about?”
            Even Roswell and Yggdra look rather bewildered.
            …I shake my head.

            “…It’s all right.
            “He knows how the original sword was made—that’s all.
            “The rest of you probably should not know the cost to me at that time; it’s not a happy story to tell.”

            The three of them exchange looks.
            As long as they are all aware that my actions right now will not change no matter how many protests I meet, that’s fine.

            “Then, I suppose I’ll go and keep Gulcasa company.”
            Roswell bows his head.
            “I’ll come back down before dinner starts, so take your time until then.”

            After that, it’s just the three of us left in the basement.
            Yggdra sits quietly in the summoning circle with her Noble Phantasm in her hands, and I sit on the cold floor before her.
            Meria finds a cushion and eases herself down onto it, sitting with her legs stretched out.

            “…If anything out of the ordinary happens to my body, or if I seem to be about to pass out, just shake my body lightly and I’ll know to stop.”

            Leaving those directions, my mind is clear and my will is set.

            “—Then. Let’s begin.”
            I give my senses over to my coursing Magic Circuit with a sensation like a firing hammer being cocked—

 

            “Ga—ah.”
            A dull throbbing.
            “—”

            My consciousness is hazy.

            It feels as though a stake is being driven into my brain through my eye socket, and my body is heavy with dripping sweat.

            My senses are dull and my body aches all over, as if I have a fever.

            “—”
            I can’t continue any longer, and stop trying to support myself with my wavering body.

            “Hey—”
            At the moment that I am about to collapse, callused hands hold me up.
            Oh.
            That’s Meria’s voice.

            “Man, you said stuff like if you seem about to pass out, but I didn’t think you’d actually start to faint. What happened to being such a big-shot magus?”
            She’s complaining.
            I open my eyes, but my vision doubles and sways, and it makes my headache worse.
            So I close them again.

            “—Um, are you all right?”
            Even Yggdra is asking in a raised voice.

            “—I’ll be all right.
            “I’m tired and I have a migraine, that’s all.”
            Somehow, I manage to reply to them.

            “I think that means you’re done, right?
            “Anyhow, the floor is cold and there’s nothing comfortable in here, so we’re taking you upstairs. Hey, help me with him—”

            While things like that are being said around me, my body is lifted up into a standing position.
            I feel dizzy and even more nauseous and disoriented.
            I try to open my eyes and am immediately assaulted by vertigo.
            “—”
            That was a bad idea. Let’s keep them closed.

            Hands support me from either side, and I am brought awkwardly up the stairs.
            …It’s bright.
            I try awkwardly to shield my face, even as I am ushered along to a destination I can’t see.

            “—Nessiah—”
            And then I hear Gulcasa’s voice.
            …I’m still too disoriented to open my eyes, but he sounds worried.

            “I’m all right.
            “I have a headache, but if I rest then it should go away—”

            “Here, I’ll take him.”
            In the next moment.
            I am lifted up into warm and familiar arms.

            Gulcasa carries me for a short distance, and then I am set down upon a soft surface.
            …I believe that this is the living room couch.

            Gulcasa doesn’t speak, but his presence lingers.
            There are soft sounds in the distance, as though everyone else is busy off in the background.

            The sickness and the headache dissipate in soft folds like waves.
            By the time I am able to open my eyes again, the light through the windows is golden, and there is a warm smell coming from the kitchen where Roswell works.

            “—”
            Gulcasa is sitting next to me.
            …I can see that Yggdra is up in the kitchen with her Master, and Meria appears to be heckling the pair of them from the table, but Gulcasa is next to me on the sofa.
            He looks only at me.
            His body is haloed in the gold light of the evening, as if he is garbed in a cloak made of flames.
            And—despite everything, just sitting like this makes me feel at peace.

            Gulcasa notices my gaze.
            He shifts to face me more directly and reaches out to touch my forehead, grazing my skin delicately with warm fingertips.

            “—Hello.”
            “—”
            His eyes widen for a moment, and then—
            “…Yeah, good morning.
            “How was it?”
            “…Hmm.
            “Well, it’s better than nothing, so I’ll take the risk.
            “For a magic that my body isn’t suited towards and a weapon that my existence itself will deny, I think I at least have some small chance of success.”

            “—Are you lucid?”
            From the dining room, Roswell calls.
            “That’s good, you’re just in time.
            “Here’s food, and then after dinner we’ll have a little bit of time to relax and take a few extra measures before you have to head out.”

 

            …And the sun goes down on the last day I will spend in this house.
            We will leave at around midnight, which still leaves several hours.
            Dinner is silent.
            It all closes down like that, and I can’t think of anything to say.

            When Yggdra is washing dishes, I reach out and take Gulcasa’s hand.

            “We’re going to take time alone, just for a while, before it’s time to leave.”

            Roswell nods like he understands, and Meria does not react, as though this is merely a matter of course.
            …I take Gulcasa’s hand, and we go up the stairs with our hands connected.

 

            “—”
            I turn on the lights and sit down on the bed.
            This room is like it always is.
            It’s small, closed, dimly lit and cluttered, but it’s become “my” space for the past week or so.
            It’s the first real shelter I’ve had since escaping from Hector’s imprisonment.
            …The shack was able to serve as a roof over our heads, but the living conditions there were so excessively poor that the stress of exposure was wearing away at my health almost as much as having had this body forcibly rewired to serve as a grail.
            So—after having gained the alliance of Roswell and Yggdra, this place became the first real shelter I have had in countless years.

            The room is like it always is.
            Gulcasa sits next to me, and we both stare at the wall in silence.

            He is warm.
            His burning demon’s blood and naturally high temperature make him radiate heat, and I think that without him next to me I probably would be shivering right now.
            The atmosphere is so tense that I am even afraid to make any noise.
            The air is heavy with tension, with fear and impatience.

            …It’s funny.
            There should be so much that we have to say to each other here and now, alone with each other on the edge of the last battle.
            Things that we can’t say in front of the others, promises to make.
            But it’s so silent.
            There is so very little left to do before the last battle begins that it feels like the next movement will set off an avalanche and nothing will be able to be taken back.

            In that tension, like balancing on razors—
            Gulcasa turns and wraps an arm around my waist.

            “—Nessiah.
            “It’s nearly time.”
            I don’t reply.
            There’s no need to confirm such a statement.

            “I know you’re afraid.
            “But—I promise you that when the dawn breaks, you’ll be free.
            “You’ll never have to fear that person capturing you, or hurting you or using you, ever again.
            “When the sun rises again, all the bad dreams will be over for good.
            “—I wasn’t able to understand all the things I should have, back when we first met each other.
            “I couldn’t see through you then, and so I failed to reach out to you when you needed someone else’s warmth and reassurance.
            “So—now at the end of all things, I’ll make a beginning for you if it takes every last ounce of my strength to do so.”

            “—”
            There’s a sharp pain in my lip.
            I’ve been biting it to keep my composure, but from the pain, it appears that I’m in danger of breaking the skin.

            “…I want to make something clear to you, Gulcasa.”
            I turn towards him and stare directly into his face.
            His inhuman eyes seem almost to be a light source of their own in this dimly lit room.
            I stare at him so hard that my own vision is painful, because I want to make sure that he hears and understands my words.
            “I know how much care for me goes into proclamations like that, that you’ll open a path for me no matter the cost.
            “But there’s something vital that you don’t understand yet.
            “…It’s that more than anything else—you have to survive.
            “You have to survive this battle with me, because if I lose you again I will have lost everything.
            “I don’t have the strength anymore to endure until I find a way to summon you from the Throne again, tether your consciousness to me again—that will no longer be possible outside the framework of the Holy Grail War.
            “If you die in this battle and return to the Throne, we will never meet again—and I will lose everything at that time.
            “I won’t have anything to live for any longer.
            “If you don’t survive the battle—I won’t be able to survive, either.
            “So—don’t say things like you’re going to use your life.
            “I need you to live, or else I—”

            A soft touch interrupts me.
            Gulcasa sets his fingertips to my face and cuts me off.

            “Nessiah.”
            “—I want a future.
            “I’ve spent my life trapped in one place, and I want my own future.
            “But I have no future without you.”

            “…Nessiah.”
            Gulcasa’s hands rest against my body as if to support me.
            “I know.
            “—I know.
            “When the morning comes—I want to face it together with you.”

 

            I don’t know what Gulcasa is feeling right now.
            He wraps both arms around my body and holds me against him, so that my senses are drenched in him.
            As if trying to make my world nothing but him.
            Every breath is tinged in the scent of woodsmoke that has always lingered heavy about his long hair.
            Having two separate bodies is too much pain and anxiety to bear.
            If we were the same being and never had to be apart, we would live together and die at the same moment.
            But if our body was the same, we wouldn’t be able to hold each other for any longer.
            An anxious kind of codependency.
            We can’t survive separated, but at the same time we are separate entities that cannot be fused.
            No matter how strongly I press myself into Gulcasa’s chest, our skin will not meld together.
            I don’t know what he’s feeling.
            All my life, I will never know with complete certainty.
            It’s just that—his heartbeat rushes with great urgency, a heavy pulse across every square inch of his skin.
            It is too intense and overwhelming for someone at rest, and so the foreign emotions in his body are at least as intense as my own.

            “—To the next sunrise.”

            I close my eyes.
            We hold each other in the blurred world of the dimly lit room without pause.

(interlude 16-1)

            “—So I have to ask a favor of you two.”

            The voice of the girl cuts through the silence of the room, and both Saber and her Master look up.
            She crosses her arms and leans against the wall in a nonchalant pose, but her gaze is very intense and her expression is unreadable.

            “All right—if it’s a reasonable request.
            “What do you need?”

            At Roswell’s words—Avenger…, Meria shrugs as if to say that it isn’t a big deal.

            “I was waiting until those two decided to take their time together.
            “—I’m sure my Master probably has some idea of this, but there’s a problem if we’re going to go head to head with Caster like this.
            “That’s my Noble Phantasm—my real Noble Phantasm, that I used to help block off the pathway last night.”

            Her audience, Master and Servant, both nod to encourage her to continue.

            “Basically, if I’m going to be fighting Caster or her Master, I need that trump card.
            “—But the thing is that it takes a lot of my energy.
            “Even if I’m relying on as much supplied prana from Nessiah as I can, the way it’s built is that it eats into my own natural stores of energy.
            “I can only use it a few times in a row before I run out of prana for good and disappear.
            “And—the energy deficit after the first two times lowers my parameters.
            “The thing is that there’s a twenty-four hour rollover on this.
            “We were fighting until a little after midnight last night, right?—So, if I go into battle as I am now, the first use of my Noble Phantasm is going to drop my parameters and make me less effective.
            “I need extra prana from somewhere if I want to be at full form and have the three-time limit, so since you aren’t fighting, it’d be great if you could fork some over.”

            “—”
            The words are so blunt that Roswell’s mind stops working.
            She can see it on his face, in the way that his eyes go wide and uncomprehending.

            Saber frowns.
            “It’s true that you’ll need extra prana, in that case.
            “—But why come to us?
            “Your own Master is much more understanding than your previous one, so you could always approach him with this problem.”

            “It’s true that Nessiah’d listen, but there’s not anything he could do.
            “If he gave too much prana to me he’d be in no condition to fight.
            “…I don’t know if you guys can tell, but between supporting me and Gulcasa and serving as the grail vessel, he’s stretched to his limits.
            “He needs all the prana he can keep in reserve if he’s going to fight, just like the both of us.
            “And besides.
            “He’s not interested in women, he wouldn’t be able to give me prana in the first place.”

            “…That is true.”
            Roswell says so with a troubled face.
            He rests the side of his face in a hand.

            “So—I don’t have any choice but to ask the only straight Master in the house.
            “And it’s obvious you two are an item, so I’m not leaving Saber out.”
            “It’s nice that you’re so frank.”
            Saber tilts her head like she’s not sure how to reply.
            Her smile is troubled, and she folds her hands in her lap like she’s keeping a secret.

            Meria watches the pair of them.
            Her body is already a tense coil of arousal.
            The cause comes both from within and outside of her, as she can’t help but feel some influence from the pair canoodling upstairs.
            Animal instincts with no outlet.
            She seeks affirmation and recognition of her life.
            Her goal is victory, and what comes after that victory.
            Even so, death is already close enough for her to sense it vaguely.
            So—that is the other reason why she is in such a state of heightened sensation already.
            She is greedy.
            She wants to be made more and more aware of the fact that she is alive, that she has a working body, and that even if her incarnation is an illusion granted by the false grail—that she is here and in the present.

            Her instincts as a living thing are very sharp, and so her hunger for prana is inevitable.
            She has always consumed the ether of other humans, made to do so by her former Master, and so that method of obtaining power is distasteful to her.
            She wants energy and to feel the exertion of her body.
            And so—her senses are heightened, and she can feel the blood beating in her lips and breasts and stomach.
            The two before her are her Master’s allies, and so they are more preferable than any other, but it doesn’t matter whose hands touch her as long as they will worship and fulfill her hunger with kindness.

 

            Saber’s eyes are boring into her.
            Perhaps—as a Servant, Saber understands this better than anyone.

            Roswell looks to her as if for confirmation.
            “—Hm.
            “Then—at least in a place more suitable than this.”

 

            The room is drenched in the blues of night.
            Like the rest of the house, the decoration is incredibly ostentatious, and the room is dominated by a king-size canopy bed.

            Roswell sits on the bed without moving to turn the lights on.
            He sits still and does not say anything, looking to the two women as if to leave all direction to them.

            “—I didn’t expect you to be this shy.”
            Well, she doesn’t really care for delicate situations, so she smirks and looks at the magus on the bed through predatory eyes.

            “—”
            Roswell makes a face like he’s put out.
            But instead of getting defensive on his behalf, Saber hides a giggle behind her hand.

            “Yes.
            “You might not expect it, but this is what my Roswell is like.
            “—He was this way with me, too, and I had to drastically take the lead to get anywhere.
            “Give him time to stop being polite, though, and I think he’ll be fine.”

            She turns to Saber.
            The golden princess has dematerialized the clothing of her manifestation, and stands with her body white and naked in the faint moonlight.
            Unlike Meria, she is small and soft, with round hips and full breasts and thighs.
            Her golden hair is silvered in the light, like a painting of an angel, but the expression on her face would be more suited for a painting of Venus.
            She has already accepted her role as an accessory to the coupling of her Master and her fellow Servant, and the earthy look upon her face is the amusement of a woman who knows men, comfortable with her own state of arousal.
            The lighting leaches the red coloring of her nipples down to a pale pink, but they are standing upright, and the same pink and soft swelling gradates upward from between her legs as well.

            Meria also takes the time to take her clothes off.
            Nakedness betrays her rough breathing and the slick wetness of her pussy and her inner thighs, but this space precludes embarrassment about such things.

            “—Anyhow, I’ll work with you until my Master can get into the mood.
            “If we’re going to do this—”

            Then, we’ll do it completely—

            The words go unspoken.
            Meria reaches out and touches Saber’s pale skin.
            It has the texture of flawless silk, all of the muscular definition padded out by softness.
            Saber lets out a sound.
            She vocalizes her sigh until it turns into a quiet moan.

            “Ah—”
            A sound like relief.
            As if, just by having her skin touched, she is being fulfilled and redeemed.

            She reaches out.
            She reaches out to the girl in front of her and pushes her back against the wall.

            “Ah—mm, you’re excitable—”
            Saber says so happily.
            “Is that really something that you should have the leisure to say—?
            “Look at you, you don’t even need this like I do and you’re already—”

            Meria isn’t the type to hold back her desires.
            Continuing to talk would only postpone the pleasure, and so she doesn’t bother to finish the sentence.
            She leans down and tastes the lines of Saber’s throat, and Saber clings to her sides and continues to make those noises like sighs of relief.
            Saber’s breasts are pressing into her chest, and the silken stomach and hips are pressing against her own skin.
            Her left knee is pressed to the wall, holding Saber’s legs open, and Saber tilts her pelvis up like an offering, willingly pushing herself into the contours of Meria’s thigh.

            She’s become hypersensitive with arousal.
            The intensity of sensation is concentrated most clearly in her hips, but all of her skin is wild with stimulation.
            Saber’s pussy, which was only slightly damp, is now becoming wet.
            Her labia are open like flower petals, and her clitoris is stiff.
            Meria explores Saber’s body with fingers, silencing her by interlocking their lips, and Saber slips her tongue in willingly.
            Her whole body is opening like a flower underneath Meria’s touch.
            A light, heady sensation like being drunk.
            Touching the girl she has trapped against the wall is like drinking honeyed aphrodisiac.

            “Ah—mm, you’re wet—”
            Saber whispers against her lips.
            …It’s true.
            If Saber’s pussy is slick with the beginnings of arousal, hers is already overstimulated and making Saber’s skin smooth with dew.
            Saber’s leg is between hers, but the angle is not high enough to provide satisfactory contact.
            She molds Saber’s breasts gently with her hands, rolls her nipples experimentally, and Saber makes pleased sounds and cants her hips up against Meria’s thigh.
            “Pick yourself up a little—”
            So she complains.
            Playing with Saber as much as she likes is fun, but it does not provide any relief.
            To touch and not be touched is more like dreaming of sex than having it, although the reality of the situation is drenched into her fingertips.

            “Ah—does this, feel nice?”
            With a heated voice.
            Saber folds her leg into a triangle shape, foot braced against the wall.
            “Nn—mm.”
            Where Saber’s flesh grazed against her lightly, now her pussy is pressed tightly against the supple surface of the golden princess’ thigh.

            “You’re so wet—”
            A dazed voice.
            Saber leans her head back against the wall, rocking her hips.
            Her breasts shake with her breath and her movement, and the white column of her throat strains.
            At the vision of invitation—Meria overflows.
            “Ya—ah—”
            She holds Saber tightly.
            Pinning the girl against the wall, she thrusts, tracing Saber’s wet skin with her throbbing pussy.
            The movement crushes Saber into the sharp contours of her hip, and the breathing of the two becomes wild.
            The dew that wells up from inside Saber’s vagina, the proof of her pleasure, makes obscene sounds as their bodies overlap, and it heats up her head.

            “Ah—mm, you’re dripping—you’re rough, it feels so nice—”
            Saber’s body arches.
            She moans and sighs, breathing lightly.
            The lips of the girl’s pussy twitch and pulse softly, the sign of a light orgasm.

            Meria tightens her hold on Saber.
            She closes her legs around Saber’s thigh, thrusts her hips fiercely, and pushes—

            Her whole body shakes tightly as she comes.
            Wetness runs down Saber’s skin and drips onto the floor, making a pattering sound.