Actions

Work Header

Glass Coffin

Chapter Text

            I have a dream about an unfortunate country.

            Maybe it was the land where the tower of Babel was built.
            The old fairy tale says that in punishment for humanity’s hubris in building a tower that challenged the very sky, god struck down the tower and broke language into pieces.
            It can be interpreted as god scattering the tongues of men apart to impede understanding, or that god simply took our ability to understand other tongues away.
            The human brain is only supposed to be able to hold a certain amount of languages at once.

            But there was a special punishment for the builders of the tower.
            Humanity as a whole was punished for allowing the tower.
            It’s just that when the tower was struck down with lightning, the ashes rained down on the grieving builders.
            From that day on, it was decided that they would forever wear the ashes on their skins and in their hearts.

            What was the purpose of the tower of Babel?
            Was it like the fairytales recorded, or were the people who built it trying to get a message to the heavens?
            Either way, the message went undelivered, and the people of the destroyed tower resigned to live on in the ashes.
            If you think about it that way—everyone of that race is like Cinderella.

            …I have a dream about that unfortunate country.
            After the fall of the tower, ages of war passed.
            There were many legends, and many heroes.
            There were people who trampled others, and people who were trampled.
            There was an island castle, and there were many, many races of people who gathered about it as if they had a right to decide who could live there and who couldn’t.
            The people of the ash were always at the very lowest run of the food chain, as if to embody their ancient curse.

            There was a little girl who loved fairy tales.
            There was a day with an endless blue sky.
            Soldiers came and killed her parents, and she was left alone sitting in their blood with all her picture books stained red.

            The town of the people of the ash was poor.
            But the girl was saved by the elder because her family was a family of magi.
            The Magic Crest recovered from the corpse of her mother was passed down to her at a young age, and she was raised by the kind elder.
            But—as if in compensation, the girl had lost “language” just like the people.

            One day.
            As if to herald a pardoning.
            The girl was gifted with a holy sign.

            Maybe it was supposed to be compensation.
            Anyway, the elder and the people of the town did their best for her.
            Even though their village was poor, there was still contact and support from other magi.
            The girl who had received the holy sign like a blessing received the best the village had to offer, resources from many people, and was finally sent to a faraway land to fight in a “war of magi”.
            If she was able to win.
            Then she would receive the cup of god and finally be able to lift the curse with her own two hands—

Chapter Text

            I think it’s the air turbulence that wakes me up.
            There’s no helping that.
            It was already all we could do to afford such a long-distance flight, so it’s not like this is a first-class ride or anything.
            But I’m stiff from the abrupt awakening and from sitting in the hard seat for so long without being able to move.

            Over my head, the seatbelt sign is on.
            Looking through the window, I can see that we’re through the veil of clouds, and I can make out individual buildings if I squint, so it seems like I’m almost here.
            …Finally.
            It’s going to be a bit of a hassle getting through the airport, I’m sure, but after that it’ll just be a bus ride or so to the hotel and I can relax for a while.
            I can’t stop rubbing my fingers over the red mark on my hand.
            Even once I make it to the hotel that’s already been booked, I’ll still have to scope out a place where I can complete the summoning without too much of a hassle.
            And on top of that, I won’t be able to do so today because I’ll be dealing with jet lag and my magic will have to acclimate to the air of the new country.
            But I’m going to run out of notebook pages if all this dealing with people doesn’t come to a stop soon.
            Unfortunately, sign language is different from country to country, and it’s not like I can actually bring my familiar out to speak for me in front of ordinary people who don’t know anything about magic. So all I can do is write to communicate with others.
            I watch the ground get closer through the airplane window and sigh.
            The sound of air rushing through my throat and nose is one of the loudest sounds I can make.
            There’s no helping that.
            But everyone in the village was used to it and whenever there was someone who didn’t know enough sign language to understand me, I could always use my familiar to get things across.
            So going through a bunch of non-magical strangers with a pad of paper is pretty tiring.
            The airport I left from wasn’t so bad because Vilgo-sama was with me to help talk to the people who worked there, but from now until I get back home I’m on my own.
            …I brought more than one notebook, but I really hope this will be enough.

 

            “—”
            I’ve heard that in Japan there’s a saying about happiness escaping you whenever you sigh.
            But since unhappiness is often the cause of sighing and there are only so many different ways to express your dissatisfaction, I wonder what you’re actually supposed to do about that?
            …Well, anyhow.
            After being jostled around by lots of tall people in a rush, I’ve at least managed to successfully pick up my stuff and check in with my passport.
            There’s thankfully a note on my ID and such that I’m not able to speak, so people I’m trying to get information out of haven’t been too nonplussed when I try to talk to them over my notebook.
            It’s just kind of draining going through the routine of taking out my passport for officials, having to re-write down that I can’t do JSL, yes, really, but I can hear just fine, and then writing back and forth on paper.
            This would be so much easier if I could just use sign language or have my familiar be a go-between. And my familiar isn’t necessarily the best message purveyor, because he’s not very intelligent—sometimes he’ll decide to echo my random thoughts, and sometimes he’ll just reply out loud to my thoughts instead.
            But writing is slow and after a while it makes my hands hurt.

            Thankfully, I don’t need to talk to anybody on the bus.
            Maybe at this specific time traffic on buses is low, because I’m able to get a window seat with no problems.
            So I can spend the trip looking outside.

            …I meant to just confirm the way as I go, but—
            Somehow I wind up getting caught up staring at the scenery.
            Well, not “somehow”, I guess.
            …It’s just that the buildings sure are tall in Japan.
            I’ve been to cities before plenty of times in my own country.
            We’re not that impoverished as a whole, even though my people’s own village has much older and smaller buildings and fewer resources.
            But our tall buildings are maybe ten floors high at most.
            This is the first time I’ve seen a skyscraper up close.

            …And the people are all really lively.
            We pass by marketplaces on the bus, and there are people standing and talking to the vendors, and no one looks aggressive or frustrated.
            It’s not that I’m in the city all the time.
            But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crowded street look this calm before.
            Back home—people would be more wary of others passing them, and haggling over goods would often turn into an argument.
            The only thing is that here, everyone looks the same.
            …In the city—in the city around the old, old castle, the people and their clothes and wares are a lot more colored and varied.
            But then, I guess Japan doesn’t have the same big ethnic mix as where I live.
            It explains the lack of tension, but it also feels a little bit listless somehow.

            Finally.
            After a twenty-minute ride on the bus, I get my suitcases and arrive at the hotel.
            It’s a little difficult to get into the building having to pick everything up, but I manage.
            Someone else who’s leaving holds the door open for me, and I’m able to pull all of my belongings into the wide lower floor of the hotel.
            …I’m not sure what you would call this kind of room.
            The carpets are all red, and the lighting is soft and golden.
            The people behind the desk are smartly uniformed.
            I pull my things to the check-in area.
            I press the silver bell and get out my notebook.
            …I have to stand on my toes to get my head and shoulders above the tall counter, even though I’m wearing big buffalo sneakers with thick soles.

            One of the clerks at the desk comes over.
            It’s a bit annoying as my side of the conversation has to be conducted over paper, but I show my identification and receive the keys to my room.
            I’m offered assistance in getting everything up, as my room is on the seventh floor.
            It’s kind to say so, but it will be inconvenient for me if someone does decide to try to help me, so I just shake my head.

            I’m given directions to the elevator, so I cart my luggage all the way there.
            …All the reservations were made long ahead of time, and a lot of them by Vilgo-sama and the Magic Association people, but even so.
            That’s a lot of professionalism, to not look askance at a fifteen-year-old girl who’s rented an expensive suite all by herself for over two weeks’ time.
            Especially because I know I look younger than I actually am.
            They say that fifteen is the age when mandatory schooling ends in Japan, and that it’s even possible to be emancipated and get married at that age, but it seems as though you aren’t considered a legal adult and allowed to do a lot of things until you turn eighteen or twenty, like in a lot of other countries.
            I wonder what led to the discrepancy in those ages as I ride the elevator upstairs.

            “—”
            And, finally, I reach my room.
            …It’s a big suite that’s about the size of a small apartment.
            There are two bedrooms, a small living area with a kitchen, and a bathroom and a smaller room with a toilet right next to it.
            …It feels a little bit too big.
            This is about half the space in Vilgo-sama’s house, and his house is the biggest one in the whole village.
            It makes me nervous, as if the grandeur of the room is a blatant reminder of how important my job here is.

            “—”
            Anyway, I slowly open up my suitcases and line them up against the wall.
            One has clothes and personal things, and my bag has all of my identification things and money inside.
            Inside the other suitcase is a collection of materials that I will use to make my magecraft,
            as well as a small cage like one would use to contain a small cat or dog.

            I lift the cage out of the suitcase and set it on the floor.
            This hotel suite has large windows that can be opened, and a small terrace.
            It’s cold right now, so I don’t think any other people staying at this hotel will be using theirs, but it’s convenient for me to be able to open the window.

            Anyhow, I open the wire door to the cage.
            A big black bird with messy feathers hops out like a well-trained parrot.

            …I’m glad this managed to work.
            He’s a familiar, after all, so it’s not like he’d definitely die after being camouflaged and hidden away for several hours, but most upscale hotels don’t allow pets and so he had to be smuggled in.
            I can let him out through the window for surveillance and also so that he won’t cause trouble inside the room, which is good.

            Moja, my familiar, hops up on top of the cage.
            He coos and twitters at me.
            …Probably looking like this it’s hard to tell, but he’s a relatively sophisticated familiar and not only am I able to use him for magical support, I can have him interpret for me because I can speak to him mind to mind.
            Well, at the same time he’s only a bird, so the downside is that anything I have to say might get a little garbled and abbreviated on his end.
            But against a magus who can’t read sign language in a place where we can’t actually write to each other, he’s my best option.
            He has an innate guard against single-action and two-verse magecraft, as well, a blessing that Vilgo-sama gave to us from the first time that I began to display signs of the holy mark.

            …It’s something to be worried about.
            Well, I have a lot of things to be worried about in this war, but at the very least it seems as though I can perform the aria to summon a Servant in my head.
            No matter how much I practice with Moja, there’s always the possibility that filtering the incantation through him would lead to it being spoken inaccurately.

            I sigh.
            For me, that’s really noisy.
            As a magus, this is only a pain when I have to use rituals determined by others.
            While most other people have to activate their magic through incantations, I’ve developed “internal incantation” abilities with help on theory from Vilgo-sama.
            Words, pictures, and concentration of prana through the body… as long as I have those things, then my disability doesn’t hinder my life as a magus.
            It’s my body, my Magic Circuits, and my Magic Crest.
            They can communicate with the prana I process just as easily as I can communicate with people who understand me when I use sign language.

            When I was still small, there were worries that I wouldn’t be able to succeed my mother’s Magic Crest and study as a magus because of my disability.
            Vilgo-sama said that was nonsense.
            There should be no reason I couldn’t as long as I had the proper mind for learning and the power to do so.
            And besides, there is plenty of precedent for a magus losing some of their ability level and still being able to cast magic just fine.
            I’ve heard that words were originally brought into thaumaturgy as a shortcut, to make spells easier to cast.
            There are even great magi who have exploited the system of sounds and language within magic to be able to achieve greater control over the prana they use.
            So, it’s not that much of a leap to take “sounds” back out and make the “language” aspect all internal, and aside from that aspect my magecraft isn’t that different from other people’s.

            Of course, when I was still young and Vilgo-sama had only just adopted me, the adults around me attempted to cure my muteness.
            But there’s actually nothing wrong with my vocal cords and throat.
            …When I was very young, and my parents were murdered—
            Something about seeing that, and being left with the bodies for so long, seems to have sealed off my ability to speak.
            It’s been a little over ten years since that time, but either the trauma was that strong or my body has simply forgotten how to produce sound over the course of that time.
            I honestly can’t remember consciously how to speak even if I felt like trying.
            There are definitely inconveniences to being like this.
            But barring some kind of miracle, it’s how I’m going to spend the rest of my life, so I’ve already accepted it.
            I think I’ve accepted it with a lot more grace than the people around me.

            …Well, then.
            Now that all my things are ready, my last tasks for today are securing dinner and picking a place to do the summoning tomorrow, but…

            I’ve been handed a lot of money for my stay in this city.
            Since it’s money after all, I’d like to conserve as much as possible for emergencies.
            And so that whatever I don’t use, I can take back with me.
            There’s room service here at this hotel, and everything seems to be high-quality from the menu that’s been left here, but at the same time it all seems to be really expensive…
            There’s a kitchen too, so if I were to buy raw ingredients then I could probably cook them.
            But most of the food that I can make is very, very simple, and I’m sure I could get a more nutritious meal by simply buying something that’s already been made.

            So.
            I take out my notebook and flip to a page that already has writing on it, and in the margins I start to write out calculations.
            My stay in this hotel has been booked for three weeks.
            I also have enough food money for slightly longer.
            The war itself should only be two weeks long, but I’ve arrived before the starting bell, and it won’t be certain that I can return to my country immediately after the final day.
            My tickets home aren’t bought yet, and so there’s a certain amount of money that absolutely cannot be touched, which will allow me to purchase plane tickets for the ride back.
            Within the rest of the money available to me, I need to divide it up between the days and decide on a bottom of the line sum for each day.
            If I have ten thousand yen for one day, then I have to try to spend less than ten thousand yen on that day so that I will have more left over whenever something happens.
            The basic rule of life is not to tempt fate, because if there’s a hypothetical that something bad might happen, it’s in fact very likely that that thing will happen.
            And we remember when we breeze past hypotheticals thinking “no way” and things do happen, to encourage ourselves to plan ahead.
            …I’d originally meant to decide on this on the plane, but I wound up falling asleep instead.

            Anyhow.
            After a lot of writing, it appears that I’ll have an upper limit of fifteen thousand yen per day.
            …That’s a lot.
            I can probably make it within ten thousand yen per day as a lot of this was calculated and given to me based on the price of food at this hotel.

            So I put my things away.
            It’s time to go get something to eat, so we’ll be leaving the hotel for a little while.
            I put on my coat, conceal Moja in the inner pocket for now, and take my bag with me as I return to the elevator and then go outside.

            “—”
            It’s half-heartedly cold outside.
            Fuyuki is an area apparently named for its long winters, and here in the city of Shinto I can believe that.
            It’s not snowing, but this is the kind of temperature that I’m pretty sure will last for quite a while.

            I pick up a map and get walking.

            On the other side of the bridge, in the mostly residential district of Miyama, it looks like there is a marketplace with fresh food.
            It’s too late to go there tonight, and so I’ll investigate that during the day some other time.
            Right now, the sun is going down.
            As just another person in a big crowd of people, I look around to locate different restaurants and gauge how much they will cost.

            There’s a lot of variety, as might be expected from a big city.
            Anyway, the upscale restaurants will definitely cost more.
            There are vending machines and such, but their contents are only suitable for snack food.
            They’ll also go on the list of “things to try out later”.

            So, in the end—

            I sit down at a booth in an outdoor ramen stand.
            The awnings are colorful, and the place is set up to offer shelter from the cold wind.
            It seems as though I’m just in time, as this place won’t be open past eight o’clock.
            Even though the food is warm, it will be too cold to stand around outside and make food once the sun has been down for that long.

            I’m able to buy a large bowl with a lot of pointing and some resorting to my notebook to assure the shop owner that yes, I understand Japanese perfectly well.
            I break the cheap wooden chopsticks apart carefully and sit down to eat.

            There are only a few other patrons at the store.
            I guess it’s just unseasonably cold, because everyone is wearing coats and eating quickly.
            …As they talk about things beside me.
            There’s mention of a foreigner who’s taken up residence at the church.

            According to the other people here, it seems that Fuyuki originally had a number of foreigners, but that in the present day there are no longer many.
            They laugh and say things like “maybe the soil of Japan didn’t suit them”.
            But it seems as though the church is different, and usually has someone foreign or of only partial Japanese descent living there.
            The church is past the residential section of Shinto, and is some distance from where I’m going to be staying, but it seems like that’s where the supervisor must live.
            I don’t know how many Japanese magi participate in this ritual, and there’s only very little that I can discover from listening to the conversations of people like these patrons at the ramen stall, who clearly don’t know anything about the hidden goings-on in this city.

            But—the food is at least very good.
            I leave a few extra coins for the vendor as a tip, smile, and am on my way.

            My breath is white in the cold city.
            The skyline looks artificial and generic, and a presence of mystery falls over the land of Fuyuki.
            From what I’ve been told, this city has been ravaged by past wars over and over again.
            Maybe that’s why the nightscape feels so much more lifeless than in my own village.

            —I’m here in this city to take part in a ritual called the Holy Grail War, where seven magi obtain Heroic Spirits as familiars and fight to the death for the right to obtain the Holy Grail.
            No one is sure what the Holy Grail actually is, but it seems that it’s something like a direct connection to Akasha which will give the winner access to great amounts of prana, enough to fulfill any wish.
            The Holy Grail selects and calls seven participants forward to become Masters and fight.
            And on the back of my hand is a mark like an amorphous red bruise.
            When I complete the summoning and obtain my Servant—
            This mark will resolve itself into a holy sign called a Command Spell, which will allow me to give three absolute orders to my Servant when necessary.

            The Holy Grail War is not a well-known ritual, but it’s received just enough attention for us to know what the holy sign was.
            After that, preparations were arranged for me to come to Japan.
            It’s said that the Holy Grail has a will, and only chooses Masters with a reason to fight for it.
            If that’s the case, I’ve probably been chosen in this war in order to obtain the power to lift our curse.

            …It’s—like an old fairy tale.
            Except that real life’s not like a picture book.
            Happiness can only be bought by stealing happiness away from others, and there isn’t a way for everyone to become happy without a “miracle”.
            In order to destroy our hereditary curse, I’ll trample over six other wishes.
            But all the same.
            The way things are in my homeland has gone on for long enough.
            So—

 

            It’s late by the time I make it back.
            At the foot of the building, I stare up at the sky.
            The roof is high.
            If I go up there late at night, I’ll be able to use that area where no one will disturb me to summon my Servant.

            I’m sure I can get up there very early or very late and set up the beginnings of a boundary field, so that only I can enter by tomorrow night.

            I reenter the hotel and go back to my room.
            I have one last major task before I go to bed.

            From inside my suitcase, I remove the “case”.
            …In order to summon a specific Servant, one must use some sort of catalyst connected to the Heroic Spirit.
            Otherwise, you’ll just summon a Heroic Spirit suited to yourself, but there will be no guarantee that the hero you get will be strong.
            In my case.
            The land where I live was once home to a great cataclysm that spawned the birth of a hundred Heroic Spirits all at once.
            So it at least wasn’t too much of a bother to obtain this.
            It’s true that the Servant I summon might not be the strongest.
            But, even more important than that is the fact that we need to be able to communicate and work together.
            I don’t know if I can communicate mind-to-mind with a Servant like I do with Moja, as a Servant is not an ordinary familiar.

            The relic that was granted to me is a fossil of a special kind of fragrant grass.
            This is a plant that’s extinct now.
            But if I use this, then the Heroic Spirit that was connected with this item should respond.

            Tomorrow.
            I’ll announce my intent to join this battle and obtain the proof of being a Master then—

Chapter Text

            …I wake up.

            “—”
            I shake off the vague sleepiness and get out of bed.
            The room’s a little cold from the outside weather, but I turn up the temperature with the air conditioning control near the door.
            It’s mid-morning.
            I’d hoped to be awake earlier, but it was difficult to get to sleep because my internal rhythms can’t adjust to the time difference in one day and because the bed is a lot softer than what I’m used to sleeping on.

            I go to wash my face, and in front of the mirror I brush and braid my hair.
            I change out of my pajamas, and open the window so that Moja can go outside.
            Once he returns I’ll be able to sense him and let him in, or if I go outside myself before he gets back, he’ll be able to sense and return to me if I call him.
            He can eat basically anything and survive, so even if he can’t find bugs or animals to eat, I think he’ll probably be fine even if he winds up scavenging through the trash.

            I double-check to make sure that I have my key cards, though it would be simple enough for me to get back into the room with magic even if I lock myself out.
            At this stage it’s probably best not to waste extraneous prana since I’m saving it for the summoning, and I may have to conserve my magical energy later depending on how much of my internal stores wind up going to my Servant.
            With the card securely in my skirt pocket, I exit the room and head for the elevator.

            As expected, the door to the roof is locked.
            It’s winter, and presumably only hotel staff would have reason to go here most of the time.
            I touch the lock with a fingertip, carefully turn on my Magic Circuit, and exert a tiny amount of “force” to undo the lock.
            Even for such a quick spell, the activation of my Magic Circuit makes my skin ache like it’s being pressed from the inside with sandpaper, but I’m used to the sensation.
            The human body rejects magecraft, and so some amount of pain is always going to be the price for resorting to magic to solve things instead of modern mechanical methods.
            But some things, like disabling locks in a split second with magical energy, are a lot faster and easier to accomplish using magecraft than with mundane methods, so it’s considered a useful trade-off.

            “—”
            I step out onto the roof.
            The sky is full of clouds, and through the streamers of gray and white the sky is blue.
            It’s bitter cold this far into the sky, and the ground under my feet is pale gray stone.
            A chain link fence surrounds the walls, likely there to serve as a barrier for anyone who might jump or fall off.

            Shivering a little in the cold, I extend my hands.
            My Magic Circuit is still on, and so I direct my power to the Magic Crest inherited from my mother, and seek out the spell for creating boundary fields.
            The boundary field I can create is very simple, and only closes off a space so that other people are repelled from the area.
            A magus with strong magical energy could probably still force their way in, but until I remove the boundary field it should be enough to keep the other residents of the hotel from coming up here.

            I’m lucky that it’s cold.
            As compensation for my not having words, my magecraft relies on internal imagery, and it’s easier to focus when I have something to create a rhythm with.
            For now I don’t need anything, but for the summoning ceremony I may need to bring a baton and have Moja fly in orbit around me at a fixed tempo.
            Thought is instantaneous, and so I need to time the words inside me with my visualization techniques.
            Combat magic involves techniques adapted from the Magic Association’s records of certain famous families of magi and their styles.

            My elemental alignment is with ether, and I cast attack spells by visualizing streams of light and explosions, like shooting stars and fireworks, or patterns of simple shapes like stars and crescent moons.
            It’s sometimes more difficult to do this with non-combat magic because the imagery isn’t always compatible.
            For the boundary field, I can imagine a dome of stars closing off the roof like a planetarium ceiling, and to create the magic circle tonight I can use imagery of nebulae and constellations, but for spells that just don’t fit the imagery, a baton or a movement that I can feel is a lot easier.

 

            “—”
            I exhale.
            My breath rises in a cloud of white steam to join the pale streamers in the ice-colored sky.
            The boundary field is set, an invisible bubble that will repel mundane people until the time that I break it or it wears away.
            But it should last for the next several weeks, if nothing else.

            …Now that that’s done, I’m getting hungry.
            I should eat lightly today so that I don’t have trouble casting the spell tonight.
            So—I’ll get the money necessary for breakfast, and go out and buy something in town.

 

            The marketplace is bright and filled with people in the midmorning.
            It’s cold, but the presence of energetic people is really invigorating.
            I get a few glances, probably because of my hair color, but that’s all.
            I don’t feel particularly unwelcome in the busy city.

            I wander for a while.
            I can stand the hunger for a while, and it seems as though the shopping district across the big bridge will be a cheaper place to get food.
            It’s a good workout to cross the long bridge, and despite the chill my legs are nice and warmed up by the time I arrive at the shopping district.
            By the way, it seems like this side of the town is the residential district, and the buildings and such are considerably smaller than the tall city called Shinto where my hotel room is located.
            The way that the marketplace in the residential district called Miyama is set up reminds me more of home, and so I’m not nervous when I purchase a bun with chocolate in the middle at the bakery.

            When I unwrap the bun and start to eat it, it’s warm and fresh and sweet, and I think it will be worth it to come out here every single morning if I can get bread this nice.

            On the way back, I see a vending machine on the side of the road.
            …Hmm.
            I have change left over from buying the bread, and it would be nice to buy a drink for the way back home.
            On top of that, we don’t have these back at home and I’ve always been curious about trying one, so—

            I approach the tall machine.
            Different drinks with brightly colored cans are lined up next to each other in the display, all labeled with prices, and it looks like sweets in a patisserie.
            Toy stores and candy shops aren’t the only things with dreams lined up in the windows, it appears.
            This machine features everything from coffees and sodas to fruit juice and flavored milk.
            One of the kinds of milk is red bean flavored.
            Apparently red beans are a traditional ingredient in native Japanese sweets.
            I’m not picky, and if it’s sweet I’ll generally like something, so I may as well try something I can only get in Japan while I’m here.
            I shift my half-eaten bread to the other hand and take out my wallet to put change into the machine.
            With the amount of change lit up in the display, I reach out my finger and push the button for the red bean milk.

            …
            ……
            ………Eh?
            Nothing’s happening.

            I’m sure I’ve done this right.
            Even if I’ve never used a vending machine before, it’s not like I don’t know how they work.
            We don’t have them in the city at home, but it’s not like I’ve never watched television.
            I glare at the vending machine and push the button again.
            …It, it’s still not coming out…

            Why, you—I paid money properly, so what do you mean by not handing over the drink I’m trying to buy?!
            I stab the button with my finger in a rapid-fire barrage.
            …Still, nothing happens.

            I-I’m pissed!
            I might be more understanding with something else, but food is a serious matter and I can’t just retreat and take it philosophically when I’m being cheated.
            I’m about to step back and give the recalcitrant machine a good kick when—

            “Um, excuse me…”

            ?!!!
            I leap backwards in a masterful display of physical finesse and manage not to drop my bread.
            There’s a plain-looking teenage boy in plain-looking clothes with plain-looking grocery bags in his arms.
            S-since when did he manage to sneak up on me out of nowhere like that?
            That’s bad. I was concentrating too much on the vending machine and stopped paying attention to my surroundings.
            …I probably should have brought Moja, since he could stay alert to the surroundings even if I’m not.

            The boy bends over and looks at the vending machine.
            He looks back at me and points at the red bean milk.
            “This is what you want, right?”

            …I can’t let my guard down, but for now I just nod.
            He lifts a hand to his chin and returns his gaze to the vending machine.
            As if making an experiment, he reaches out and presses the button.

            …Eh?
            There are two heavy thuds in the tray beneath all the drinks.

            “See? It was just being stubborn. And now you get two for one, look.”

            I don’t get what’s happening anymore.
            Why did it listen to him and not to me? Would it have put the drinks out if I had just pushed the button one more time, or was he doing something special to make it behave that I couldn’t perceive?

            Still pondering the incomprehensible turn of events, I fish the drinks out of the tray.
            The milk I was trying to buy and a bottle of iced coffee come out, but while I’m trying to decide how to carry them—

            The half-eaten bread falls out of my hand and hits the ground with a plop.

            …Ah.
            The flat bottom hit the ground and is already covered in dirt and grit.
            Even if I pick it back up to try to eat the part that isn’t dirty, so much of it is dirty that it wouldn’t be safe.
            And if dirt has gotten into the filling, the bread will be completely inedible by now.
            Ah.
            …It’s no good.
            I could honestly cry.

            There’s a rustle.
            When I look up, the boy is digging something out of one of his bags.
            He looks at it, and then holds it out to me.
            …It’s another roll of bread identical to the one I accidentally dropped just now.
            Even the wrapping is the same as the one I got, and it looks as though they’re even from the same store.

            “I have a lot, so take mine, okay?”
            The boy says so with a smile.
            …………Well.
            If he insists, I’m certainly not going to refuse—but is that really okay, to just hand over something you bought for yourself to some stranger?
            This boy is either very stupid—or very kind.
            Whichever it is—I won’t forget this offer.

            I accept the bread and smile in thanks.
            Without opening the packaging, I bow my head once and turn to leave.
            …I think I’ll wait to open all of these until I get back to the hotel, just in case.

 

            “—”
            The sun has gone down.
            I’ve spent the evening in meditation to purify my body and not waste any unnecessary prana.
            So, now that it’s night, I collect my tools into my bag and ascend the elevator and stairs to the cold rooftop.

            “—”
            Moja is perched on the fence, waiting for me there.
            When I emerge, he flaps over to land on my shoulder.
            He scatters ragged black feathers all over the place and sticks his beak into my hair.
            I’m used to it, so it’s not a distraction.

            The cold, distant air of the rooftop is suitable for such a ritual.
            This isn’t my workshop, and just setting a boundary field isn’t enough to create an atelier.
            But this place so far removed from any human presence is barren enough that my thaumaturgy will take root here.
            It’s like a closed-off world.
            I feel like I’m standing at the top of the tower of Babel before it was destroyed.
            Even though the tower was never completed, and even though we only know its intended form through oral history, I feel as if I am standing a hair’s breadth from the heavens.

            I take out a ritual dagger from my bag, and create a shallow cut along my arm.
            As cold needles enter my tendons, a phantom sensation from the activation of my Magic Circuits, I move the dagger so that the blood that flows out of the wound flies through the air in a slender black ribbon to decorate the clinical stone under my feet in the pattern of a glyph.
            I feel light-headed, as if I’m pulling a black tapeworm out of my veins, and the sensation of blood being dragged out is a bit nauseating.
            But I don’t stop until the glyph is complete.

            “—”
            I breathe out and seal up the wound.
            In a more rural area you could hunt animals and use their blood for this ritual instead of your own, and if you were rich you could substitute another material for blood, but this is the city and I’m poor.
            If I wanted to use animals as scapegoats, I’d have spent days having Moja hunt for small birds. That’s not cost-effective use of my time, especially because I don’t know how many seats are left in this war.

            With the circle complete, I remove the fossil from my bag and place it in the center of the glyph, the focus of all the power inside it.
            The relic will call for the Servant, and I’ll use the incantation to open the gate and forge the connection between us.

            I take out my snap baton and unfold it.
            It’s a simple length of metal with a small weight on either end, like a rhythmic gymnast or a marcher’s tool.
            But it’s very plain instead of cute or showy, made of metal and hard white plastic.
            I flip it over in my hand.
            A broom would be better.
            The extra weight and the length are more what I’m used to folding over and over in circles while casting spells that require me to empty my mind of all but the incantation.
            But there’s no real way to fit a broom into a suitcase without breaking it, and even if I went to a department store to buy one, it wouldn’t have the clinking weight of the charms and baubles that I attach to my focus at home.
            The weight, the heft, and the little sounds of metal clicking together.
            I can’t have any of those, but the baton should be a suitable replacement for now.

            Moja’s claws dig into my shoulder.
            There’s a little pain, but it’s so small and insignificant that it won’t create a distraction.
            Even if he takes off from his perch, it won’t break my concentration.
            Being used to having a familiar is useful at times like this.

 

            …Now.
            I stabilize my breathing and hold out my hands.
            …Let’s begin.

 

            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!

            Intense pressure like a building wind about to create a tornado.
            It erupts throughout the enclosed space of the boundary field.
            I can feel the power buffeting my clothes and hair, and near my ear Moja makes little squawking noises in protest and mantles his wings.
            All of that is in the background.
            It’s just unnecessary white noise.

            What’s important is the steady weight and rhythm of the baton in my hand, and the words I carve into my heart.

            …I can feel it.
            It’s a tug like a fish pulling at a fishing line.
            Little fishing hooks have been inserted under my skin, and something on the other end of the line is caught, tugging as if urging me forward so that we can meet.

            …Now.

            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—!!

            Enough mana is crashing around in the air to bring the building down—
            As soon as I think that.
            There’s a hot, searing, horrible pain in my hand as though red-hot metal is being set against my skin—

            And then there is a sound like a footstep.

            The wind dies down.
            Somebody speaks in a clear voice.

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

            There’s a clatter.
            My hand must have hurt too much, because I’ve dropped the baton.
            Sweat is dripping off my skin, and I feel like I’ve been standing in a heavy downpour.
            My head is pounding and my legs feel like soggy noodles, but I open my eyes.

            There’s a young man standing in the middle of the summoning circle.
            He wears old-fashioned leather clothes, with the crest of a running horse and spear-wielding rider stamped here and there on his armor.
            His eyes are like precious stones.
            They’re pretty like the sea, blue-green in his dark face.
            He looks straight at me.
            As if he won’t move or speak or do anything else until he confirms my answer.

 

            I raise my hands.
            They’re like heavy steel weights, but I lift up my hands and shape them.

            —Yes.
            I’m the one who summoned you here—

            The man smiles.
            “I, the Servant Archer, have come forth in response to thy summons.
            “From this time forth, mine bow shall be with thee, and thy fate shall be with me.
            “Now, our contract is complete.”

            The back of my hand is throbbing.
            It feels like all the prana is leaking away from my body in an invisible mist.

 

            “—”
            “…Master?”
            My Servant—Archer blinks as if in confusion.
            The world tilts.

            I fall.
            I don’t feel any impact against the stone, but simply fall as if my body is sinking into a sea of soft velvet—

Chapter Text

            I have a dream about an unfortunate country.

            The people of the ash built their tower twice.
            The first time, the tower was struck down by the heavens as if in punishment.
            Their skin was stained gray by the ashes, and their lives were weighted down with a heavy curse as a sign of the gods’ wrath.
            The people of the ash became immortal.
            …Immortality is supposed to be a perfect state of youth and agelessness, so perhaps it would be better to say that their immortality was flawed.
            The people of the ash could not die of old age, but their bodies continued to age and decay even so.
            They could become rotting corpses or wraiths, but they could not die naturally.
            Suicide, mercy killings, murder at the hands of others… they could only be relieved of their suffering through violence.
            You couldn’t call it anything other than a curse.
            Still, the people of the ash lived on.
            They endured their cursed bodies, gave birth to cursed children, and ended their lives in a slowly creaking wheel of never-ending pain, hoping that one day it would be deemed enough and the curse would be lifted.
            Needless to say, that day never came.

            The people of the ash lived with other races around the old island castle.
            During the early eras, there was peace despite the sometimes-uncomfortable ethnic and cultural mix.
            The four peoples who lived around the castle were used to each other’s ways, aided each other when necessary, and left each other alone otherwise.
            …Eventually, however, a more warlike people arrived from across distant borders, desiring to claim the land and castle for themselves.

            There were some who did not resist, content to be allowed their farms and villages.
            The people of the ash were among those who refused to hand over their ancestral lands.
            …They were cursed, but they were nevertheless human, just as the invaders were.
            Nothing meant that they had to lie down and be trampled by selfish outsiders.
            But the invaders were strong.
            They crushed the native races who resisted, and upon claiming the castle and creating their kingdom, allowed the rebellious indigenous people to have none of what was rightfully theirs.
            The people of the ash were forced through marshes that poisoned their bodies, and contained in wastelands that could not sustain them.
            They were despised and oppressed by the invaders and the descendants of the invaders for hundreds of years.

            …And so the people of the ash built the tower again.
            Not as a signpost for all the peoples of the world to gather.
            But as a medium for their prayers to reach the heavens—

 

            “—”
            My first confused thought as I wake up is that it sure is cold.
            I lift up my exhausted upper body, but when I put my hand down the surface underneath my fingers is flat cold concrete, not warm sheets—

            Eh?
            I shake my head to clear it.
            …Oh.
            That wasn’t a smart move, as now my head is spinning with dizziness.
            I hold onto my dizzy head until my vertigo abates and look around.

            It’s morning.
            I’m at the hotel—or more correctly, I’m on the roof.
            I can tell that it’s morning because the sky is lightening to a pale bluish gray, with the sun rising behind the clouds.

            Hmm.
            Last night, I was—
            As I recall the previous events, it becomes obvious how sloppy I’ve been.
            Even though I was only performing the summoning ritual, calling my Servant cost a lot of energy, and I must have passed out immediately afterward.
            …And then I spent all night unconscious on the roof.
            Um. I should probably be grateful that I didn’t freeze.

            I get to my feet.
            I still have my key card, so getting back to my room shouldn’t be a problem.
            As I’m looking around, I hear a familiar squawking noise, and hold out my arm for Moja to land on.
            …My familiar does not seem the worse for wear after a night out in the cold, and hops up to my shoulder like nothing is wrong.
            It must be nice to have feathers.

            “—Master.”

            At the sudden voice, I jump a little, making Moja mantle his wings and open his beak next to my ear to make disgruntled bird noises.
            Where did Archer come from all of a sudden?!
            As I turn around with a hand on my chest to keep my heart from leaping out, I see my Servant behind me where there used to be empty space only a few seconds ago.
            He takes a look at my expression and scratches his head apologetically.

            “—Sorry. I was in spiritual form from sunup until now.
            “I didn’t know where to take you during the night, so I just stayed corporeal to make sure that you didn’t get too cold, and I thought that once the sun rose I should stop that to keep from using too much of your prana…
            “That’s not really an excuse for startling you, though.”

            …Oh, so that’s the case.
            I shake my head to show that I’m not angry.

            —But more importantly, we should go inside.

            When I sign so to Archer, he nods his head.
            “Then, I’ll resume spirit form until we’re in a place where we can speak to each other privately.
            “I think that what I’m wearing will definitely draw unwanted attention.”

            Well, that’s true enough.
            I’ve heard that Japan isn’t all that judgmental on personal fashion, but that can only go so far when Archer is dressed in centuries-old leather armor and is carrying a weapon.
            …In that case, it might be best to try to do something about that, since it will be difficult to communicate with my Servant while we’re out in the city unless he’s corporeal.
            It would be eye-catching anyway if I were to talk to thin air, but signing to thin air would be even more so, and I think there are limits to what I can communicate purely mentally.

            “But, Master, while we’re here—”

            At the sound of my Servant’s voice, I look back up.
            He hasn’t disappeared yet, and is still looking at me.

            “I wasn’t able to do so last night, so I’ll introduce myself.
            “—My true name is Heckler D. T. Ivor, and in life I served as a knight of Aventheim as a member of the Twelfth Order.
            “I will serve you in this Holy Grail War to the best of my ability.”

            Good, that’s good.
            It would be strange if I had summoned a Servant other than him, as this was the catalyst that I used after all.
            But—it’s good to have confirmation, and it’s good to know that the man who will be my Archer thinks of this kind of thing as important.

            —Is it true that you receive knowledge of the current era when you’re summoned?

            At my question, my Servant tilts his head.
            “Yes, we do. I’m probably speaking the language that’s native to this country, instead of my homeland’s language, for instance.”
            …Come to think of it, that is definitely the case.

            —Then, I’ll wait to introduce myself until we’re inside.
            The writing in this language is phonetic and so it should be easier to just write it for you to read than to spell it out in sign.

            He raises his eyebrows, and then smiles a little.
            “…Okay, that does make sense.
            “I’ll follow your lead, Master.”

            And so I head back into the hotel with my incorporeal Servant following me.
            Moja is still perched on my shoulder, but hopefully at this time we can get back to the room safely without being spotted by the hotel staff—

 

            ……And so.

            “I see, I see.
            “So your name is Vienya, and you’re here from the land I used to call home…
            “I’d hoped that maybe the war in my generation had been able to change things for the good, but if you’re here representing your ethnic group in hopes of granting them better rights, I guess it was too much to ask for after all.
            “…That’s a little disappointing.”
            Heckler, my Archer, folds his arms with a troubled expression.

            After some difficulty, I was able to arrange for room service, and so we are sitting at the kitchenette table in my hotel suite over a lovely warm spread of pancakes and English muffins and eggs and sausages.
            I had to have Heckler hide with Moja out of sight when I was actually accepting the food from the staff member who came to deliver it, but such a big breakfast is worth it.
            This is one of the times that it’s nice to speak using sign language, as it’s not rude if I keep talking while I chew, and as long as I have my hands free I can make a reply.
            It seems like Servants don’t get as much nourishment from food as living people, as their actual sustenance is in the form of prana, which is apparently why Heckler is only taking small pieces of this and that to see what they taste like.
            Instead, he cuts up sausages into small bites and feeds them to Moja.
            …Apparently he likes animals, and Moja is easy to please and tends to like people who will give him food.
            I don’t know whether to be impressed with Heckler’s generosity and think he’s a good person, or be annoyed that he can afford to be this cavalier in front of food.

            —Rather than trying to secure our rights using the Holy Grail, we need to be able to lift the curse on us.
            Because for as long as we are cursed, we’ll have to stay relatively secluded in order to keep from drawing attention.
            There’s still plenty of discrimination, but if we could function as normal living beings then maybe there would be a chance for us to try to have a voice in politics and the like.
            It’s just that the curse technically classifies us as magical beings, and the Magic Association would come after us if we revealed the existence of magic to the average people around us.
            Even though there aren’t many of us who function as magi these days. It’s a little ironic.

            Heckler listens quietly to my explanation and sighs.
            Because he’s a hero from my own country—from the Land of a Hundred Heroes, it’s easy for him to grasp the general situation.
            That honestly helps me out a lot.

 

            …Heckler D. T. Ivor, member of the Twelfth Order of the Knight Kingdom.
            He is one of over a hundred heroes who became Heroic Spirits in a great cataclysm that once embroiled the land where I was born.
            A member of the royal court of the time summoned a demon god that he couldn’t hope to control in hopes of overthrowing the king.
            Due to a mix of court politics and that person’s lack of power, the demon god ran wild and the whole kingdom became infested with demons, and the hundred knights of the king’s army all fought and had their souls separated from their bodies at that time.
            My ancestors were indirectly involved in the conflict as well, as they had been trying to reconstruct the tower of Babel in order to plead for intercession from the gods over the cruelty with which the kingdom treated them.
            The tower was destroyed for a second time by an angel sent down to punish the country, and that angel formed an alliance with the king to get rid of the demons.

            The legend of the king’s knights is apparently not that well-known outside of our country, and the number of heroes in the legend means that the only commonly known ones are the king and the angel.
            But at the same time, because the site of the old legend was our own country, it was easier to obtain an artifact to use to summon one of the heroes, and we had some liberty to choose one who wouldn’t be rebellious against a Master like me.
            Heckler’s people are also indigenous residents of our country, and although it wasn’t to the same degree as my own people, they received discrimination because like us they had tried to fight against the invasion of foreign settlers.
            According to what I’ve read, he himself joined the king’s army out of hopes that he could change society for the better somehow, so it seems like I’ll be able to count on at least some degree of sympathy.

            It’s also just practical to have summoned a Servant from my own country.
            Servants receive knowledge about the modern day when they’re summoned, but sign language is most likely not considered common knowledge enough to be transmitted.
            But sign language in modern-day Aventheim is derived from the hand signals used by soldiers in the Knight Kingdom, and so even if some of the small nuances are different from in the past, Heckler will understand me when I’m signing.
            In the end, the ability to collaborate and strategize easily is just more important than raw power in a situation where it’s me and my Servant against many unknown enemies.

 

            “—So, Master.”
            Heckler, who busied himself with feeding Moja more slices of sausage while I was thinking, addresses me again.
            “What are your plans for this war?”

            —Well.
            Before anything else, we obviously need to patrol the town for information.
            We should do that tonight and try to stay unobtrusive so that we’ll see the enemy before they see us, since neither of us has any means of close-range fighting.
            We wouldn’t be as good at it as an Assassin, but if we can find out which enemies we can take on directly and places where we might be able to eliminate others from afar, then we might be able to win—

            Heckler nods along with my plan.
            “Then, tonight?”

            I incline my head.

            —Before then, I need to shop for food supplies.
            And just in case, we should think about whether we might need clothes for you, if we want to move around the town with you in physical form at some point.
            It’s already noon, and I want to be done with things before sundown, so at any rate this won’t be on the shopping list for today, but—we’ll need to consider whether there’s situations where it would be better to have you ready at my side even if that might draw attention to me from other Masters.
            I want you to think about it too—

            “…Hmm.
            “Yeah, I guess that would be something to keep in mind.”
            Heckler folds his arms with a serious expression.
            “—Anyhow.
            “I’ll still accompany you outside, but in spirit form.
            “It would be a good chance to get a look at the city as well.”

            —Well, of course.
            Even if this is a fight between only seven people, it’s still a war, and there’s only so much I can do to defend myself alone.
            If I’m going outside, then I want you around me at all times just in case.

            …For some reason, this makes Heckler smile.
            “Eheh.
            “—That’s good to hear, I’m really glad.
            “For one thing, it’s sensible, and—I’m happy that you’re going to rely on me, Master.”

            …………
            It’s good that he’s honest.
            But on the other hand, that’s a little embarrassing…

 

            And so once the big breakfast that extended into a brunch is over, I pocket my room key card and lock up to go outside.

            It will be more cost-effective not to take a bus or taxi, and so I take my time and walk back to the big bridge.
            I don’t sense anything out of the ordinary, but I still have Moja take to the sky above so that I will be able to sense through him if he spots anything.
            We don’t know when the war will begin, and it’s impossible to rule out the chance that some Masters will be able or willing to attack in daylight, so it’s important to be able to keep an eye out as well as to have Heckler at my side in case of combat situations.
            As an Archer, it’s reasonable to expect that he is not very good at close-range fighting, and I need some distance to cast spells too.
            So, not being taken by surprise at any given situation is important to our survival.

            Heckler is quiet on the walk down to the market in Miyama.
            His invisible presence is alert, so I think he’s probably looking around and analyzing the terrain for places that will be advantageous to hide in or attack from.

            The marketplace is crowded and lively.
            I reconfirm my budget to myself, and look around in various stores.
            My cooking skill is only about average, so most of what I’m interested in is obtaining the materials necessary for simple meals, and for already-prepared things that can be heated up or premade mixes that can only need vegetables, and so on.
            Fruits and vegetables on their own are fine too, as they can just be washed and cut up as a side dish or as a snack.
            Frozen meat may also be a risk even in this weather, given the long walk back to the hotel.
            So, I make a mental note to myself to only ever buy frozen meat and dairy if I will have enough money left over to pay for a taxi or public transportation.

            In the end, I leave carrying grocery bags filled with vegetables and fruit and bread.
            This should be enough for a few days.

            It’s already four in the afternoon.
            I hold on to the bags so that they won’t fall, glare at the vending machines that I pass, and walk back across the bridge towards the hotel with Heckler silent the whole way and Moja still circling overhead.

 

            —After using the materials available to me to make a simple cream stew.
            I put away the leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch, get a coat, and lock up the hotel room.

            It’s already quite dark when I go outside.
            The city of Shinto is still lit up here and there from building to building and with street lights, obscuring the sky but looking like strange stars have come down to roost all over the town.
            Even so, there are considerably fewer people out here tonight than I would expect in such a large town.
            The people hurry from place to place as if they don’t want to be outdoors after dark, and the number of civilians out on the streets is about the volume of people that I might see wandering around during the day at my home.

            …Now that I think about it.
            This place has hosted the Holy Grail Wars for a very long time, and apparently the last war was a violent one that caused a lot of trouble for the public.
            Even if they don’t know the cause, the people may have it carved into their minds like an instinctive fear that it’s better to stay indoors during the hours that magi might be active.
            …I feel a little sorry for the people, but all the same it’s much more convenient that way.
            If there are fewer mundanes around, there’s obviously less need to worry about being seen and what to do about anyone who has the misfortune of walking into a big flashy magical battle.
            We’re supposed to erase the memories of anyone who does so, or kill them.
            I’ve never had to do either, and I don’t really like the idea of killing someone when it’s not in self-defense.
            Even in a situation like that, when the attacker can’t complain about getting killed, once you die it’s all over.
            The people who are the most hurt and are left to pay the price are the people who surrounded the deceased in their daily life.
            ……I know that firsthand, so I can’t help but think that way.
            So it’s good if I don’t have to harm anyone and repeat the sin of the soldiers who killed my own parents.

            …And anyway, if there are not a lot of men roaming around, there’s less chance that someone will call out to me.
            Japan is supposed to be a relatively safe country when it comes to those kinds of matters, but that doesn’t stop evil men from feeling like they’re entitled, and if they’re evil men anyway then they wouldn’t likely care that I look younger than I am.
            Heckler is with me, but he is invisible, so it’s not like his presence is going to deter creeps.
            Even like this he should be able to help me escape, but…
            It’s a reason why I might need to get him modern clothes, even though having him take physical form during a night patrol will bring unnecessary attention to us from our real enemies.
            …I guess I’ll leave that option unless I think that things will be a problem.

            I stuff my hands into my pockets and keep walking.
            It’s cold, and my breath is white.
            The wind makes melancholy noises as it rushes through the gaps in skyscrapers.

            We continue to walk through the town as more and more people disappear into buildings and the scenery gets darker.
            I pull out my hand and check my watch.
            It’s already eleven o’clock by now.
            I slide my hand back into my pocket to protect it from the cold and to conceal the red proof of my contract with Heckler that’s engraved into the back of my hand.
            If there’s still no activity in Shinto, then we should probably move our reconnaissance over to Miyama instead.

            In silence, we cross the bridge.

            It is even darker and quieter here.
            All of the houses have their lights off but for a few up on the distant hills.
            It feels like the scenery is holding its breath, and I instinctively make my steps light to conceal any sound.
            I hug the shadows as we walk down the wide streets of the residential areas.

            At last.
            I think we’re approaching something like a crosswalk.

            “—Master.”
            Suddenly, Heckler’s voice whispers, as if directly into my ear.
            I know that no one will be able to hear him but me.
            “I can hear the sounds of steel.
            “—There seems to be a battle going on somewhere close by.
            “It will be dangerous to approach on foot.”

            I look up at the sky and narrow my eyes.
            There are trees and rooftops nearby and there doesn’t seem to be any better cover.

            —I’ll send Moja out ahead.
            Once he scouts out the location of the fight and a good vantage point, can you take me there so that I won’t be noticed?

            “Yeah, that shouldn’t be a problem.”
            Heckler replies immediately.
            It looks like he’ll be able to view my signing perfectly even in this dark night.
            “Once we get to places with high walls and houses, just jump and I can carry you and take care of the landings so that there isn’t any noise.
            “From there, if you stay low and in the shadows you should be all right.”

 

            …Moja returns without incident.

            —It seems like the fight is happening a few streets away.
            There’s a place to hide on a rooftop, so we’ll approach from another direction—

            I say so and take off running in the opposite direction of the battle.
            My footsteps are quiet and don’t echo, and when I trust in my Servant’s words and gear up to jump at a fence, my body suddenly becomes weightless.
            Carried by Heckler, I alight soundlessly on the roof of a house, and move forward at a quick pace while keeping my body low to avoid attention and keep from slipping on the uneven surface.
            Jumping from rooftop to rooftop is effortless as well.
            And before long, I begin to hear it.
            …Unmistakably—the sounds of clashing steel.

            I slow my ascent.
            When I can see flashes of sparks flying over the edge of the house, I stop.

            —Keep me from falling—

            I don’t wait for a reply.
            I crawl to the apex of the house, hide behind the chimney, and peer out from the shadow of the dark structure with my body supported by my invisible Servant—

 

            There, in the crossroads.
            As I narrow my eyes to watch clearly, I observe the shapes of four people.

            On one side of the combat is a woman with long hair and a fashionable coat.
            On the other stands a small person in a white dress.
            The two of them are circling the perimeter of the battle like vultures, light on their feet and poised to strike at one another.
            Even without the two grappling in the center, I would have been able to tell that these are the magi commanding the two Servants.

            Right in the middle of the street is a spectacle that makes my muscles tense and forces me to breathe lightly and soundlessly.
            My skin prickles with the intensity of the desire to kill that I can feel even from a more-or-less safe distance.
            Heavy footsteps, brilliant sparks, and the cacophony of steel ringing on steel.
            I don’t dare push myself further up and around the edge of the chimney.
            Even if I’m at a distance, I’ll be in trouble if I’m spotted by the Servants or their Masters.
            But I can still make out some details about the two who are fighting.

            One of the Servants is a man in red armor.
            His hair is long and red like a battle flag, and the weapon he carries in his hands is a brightly-colored scythe.
            The other is a woman in white armor.
            I can’t see her face because it’s shielded by the visor of her helmet at this angle, but her hair is golden and she holds the hilt of a long, broad sword with both hands.

            “—”
            Before I realize it I’m holding my breath.
            The movements of the two Servants are inhuman.
            Each blow contains a deadly amount of prana, and their reaction times are much faster than anything a human might be able to manage.
            Every time their weapons clash together, the whole block lights up as if illuminated by heat lightning.

            But I can’t just watch in awe.
            The reason why I’m hiding here and observing in the first place is for the sake of information.
            …The female Servant is probably Saber, the class renowned as the most powerful.
            I can’t tell what the male Servant’s class is just yet.
            The polearm in his hands could qualify him as a Lancer, but that’s not certain, and the only classes that I can rule out just looking at him are Assassin, as he’s too heavily armored for stealth, and Caster, because he’s definitely a physical fighter.
            I’m too far away from the magi to appraise their level of power.
            The woman appears to be relaxed from her pose and gait that lack tension, but that could be false confidence or a bluff.
            The distant person in white moves like a cat, with careful footfalls.
            Like the woman, it could be poise or it could be wariness or deliberately done to conceal weakness.

            As if by a signal that I’ve missed, the two Servants who clashed so steadfastly leap apart.
            The man in red armor stands protectively in front of his Master, the person in white.
            The woman with the sword holds her weapon at the ready in front of the woman in the expensive coat.

            “—If you’d like to leave with your life intact, I’m willing to give you this one last opportunity.”
            The Master in white speaks, the voice revealing him as a man.
            “I have already warned you that the starting bell of this war has not yet been rung.
            “And surely the only thing more ignominious than being disqualified by killing opponents too early would be receiving the ignoble title of the second Saber in the history of this war to be defeated in the early stages.”
            A casual, somewhat scornful voice as if he’s looking down on his opponent.
            He confirms for me that the Servant he’s facing is Saber.

            “Oh, get real.”
            Meanwhile, the woman replies to him in a bored-sounding tone.
            “You don’t actually think that you’re going to chase me away with an empty threat like that, do you?
            “—Look, I have more than enough pride and training riding on this to determine that I won’t run away from a battle I can easily win.”

            “—Hmm.”
            The man dressed in white replies with an unimpressed noise.
            “Arrogant, I see.
            “—And foolish. I have no desire to endanger my standing in this war, but if you continue to aim so persistently for our lives you will leave me with no choice.
            “If you reevaluate your ability to win this battle then, it will be too late.”

            Even from this far away, it feels like the air would ignite into a conflagration if you tapped a steel and a flint together.
            The two Servants stare at each other silently as the Masters talk tough at one another, and the intent to kill from the four is strangling.

 

            And then.
            As if a switch has been flipped.
            Both Saber and the Servant in red move.

 

            But they don’t leap towards each other.
            It’s so sudden that for a moment I don’t realize what has happened, but there’s a clatter from the direction of the red Servant and there’s faint glimmers of light from around Saber and her Master.

            “Saber—?!”
            “Rosary, please stay on guard.
            “—There are other enemies hiding here.”

            On the other side, the red Servant brandishes his scythe.
            “—Stay close.
            “There’s a sniper somewhere here.”

            “What do we do, Master?
            “—Magic didn’t work on her!”
            And, from further away there’s a high girl’s voice raised in something like panic.
            From the shadows.
            I can vaguely make out the shapes of two people, who must be another Master and Servant.

            “It was worth a shot at least.”
            So close that I nearly jump and give away my cover, there is another female voice, this one bright and cheerful.
            From the cover of another rooftop, a light-haired girl jumps down to the ground, followed by her Servant.
            The Master is wearing a school uniform and ribbons in her hair, and looks like she’s only a few years older than me.
            Her Servant is a young adult, a woman with sharp eyes and brightly-colored hair pinned up severely.
            From the crossbow that the Servant holds, and the metal gauntlet on her hand that is exaggerated to a size useful for a weapon, she can only be Assassin.

            So, the other Servant who attacked Saber and her Master with magic must be Caster.
            When I look to the pair emerging from the distant shadows, the Servant is a girl with long pale hair holding a staff, and the Master seems to be about the same age as her, with short red hair and what looks like a gun held in each hand.

 

            “—”
            The Master of the red Servant slaps a hand to his forehead and lets out an exasperated sigh.
            “—Really, now.
            “All you young people are so fatally hasty. I’ve been saying and saying that the Grail War hasn’t formally begun yet, but none of you have any intent to listen, do you?
            “What on earth will you do if jumping the gun means that any dead Servants won’t count towards the final total?
            “Everyone does understand that this is a ritual, correct? There is no guarantee that the Lesser Grail is stable enough to catch the blood of the dead until all the players are assembled, and we are still short one Master.”
            He complains in a dry tone as his Servant stands on guard against all the enemies.

            “There isn’t any way to tell that what you’re saying is true.
            “—I’ll consider ceasing hostilities, but only if you can offer up proof.”
            It’s Caster’s Master that proclaims this.
            She points to him with one of the guns in her hands, moonlight gleaming off the barrel.
            Her finger is still laid to the side and not on the trigger.
            …I don’t know very much about guns, but I can at least tell that they are revolvers, which have a bit of an old-fashioned feeling compared to things like pistols, which is what you’d usually think of when you hear the word “handgun”.
            Most magi don’t associate much with technology and modern weaponry aside from what’s necessary to survive, so I wonder if this girl is a rebel against the precepts of the Magic Association or if she just comes from a family of magi that are oddballs.
            I don’t think that reformist views are very common among magi these days, even if the leader of the Magic Association is a reformist himself.

            “Hmm, well, that’s a practical concern.”
            The red Servant’s Master continues to talk in a leisurely way.
            “I suppose that you can always go to the church in Shinto and try asking the supervisor.
            “Though, I must warn you that doing so would be taking your life into your hands.
            “The supervisor in this war is crooked.”

 

            “If you’re that enthusiastic about it, then of course I won’t be going all that way.”
            Caster’s Master says so in a matter-of-fact kind of voice.
            Beside her, Caster nods.
            “If that’s what my Master has decided, then we can always go ahead and take the risk!
            “Don’t worry, I’ll beat you all up really fast.”
            …This is just my personal opinion, but it’s a little strange having a death threat being issued in such an airy and cheerful tone.

            “I see.
            “…Saber’s Master here has already been proving recalcitrant, so what about you, Master of Assassin?
            “With foreknowledge of what you’re getting into, will you take the sensible route and back down for the time being?”

            “Mm, you make it sound really reasonable, but—”
            The girl in the school uniform shrugs her shoulders.
            “They say a fleeing back’s an easy target, and even if this isn’t a ruse so that you can attack me when my guard is down, I sure don’t put it past those other two to do the same.
            “When you think of it like that, I’d much rather stick around and take my chances.
            “—I can’t afford to lose, and so I’ll gladly pick the choice that seems like it’s closer to victory and survival.”

 

            With that, the red Servant’s Master lets out another sigh.
            “…Well, you heard them, Rider.
            “I would rather not stick around to play with such fools, and so—I will need to ask you to do something about this.
            “It’s fine for children to decide to take risks, but I have rather more riding on the outcome of this contest than most.”

            The man in the red armor bows his head and lets out a breath.
            The clouds of white stream up into the air, as if it’s steam coming from the mouth of a dragon about to breathe fire—

            “—All right.
            “All you small fries had better not get in my way unless you’re sure you can handle the fight you’re picking—”

            The red Servant—Rider reaches out with one arm and pulls his Master close to him.
            Gripping his long scythe in his free hand, he sinks his body down in the tense, tense air.
            And he stretches out his neck in an odd, bestial sort of movement, his eyes gleaming an inhuman yellow color in the pale moonlight as he pulls his lips back from his teeth in a grimace like a snarl—

            There’s a roaring noise like thunder, or like a powerful engine being revved.
            There’s a great gust of wind and a burst of flame.
            One after another, the voices of women raise into the air, and I can hear a bowstring’s twang and the report of a gunshot, along with several spells so powerful as to be visible to the naked eye—

            But the wreath of fire washes away.
            Befitting of the class name Rider, the Servant is sitting astride an absurd animal that I’ve never seen in my life.
            It is about the size of a horse, but it is clearly reptilian, with red scales and long fangs, and it balances on its powerful hindquarters like a bird.
            Its forelegs are small, like those of a carnivorous dinosaur.

            “—”
            I swallow my breath.
            That’s unmistakably a type of dragon, the rarest and most powerful of the fantasy races.
            It’s small, and so it’s probably a lesser variety, but—it’s unbelievable to see even a Servant riding such a beast.
            Dragons are such a high class of fantasy being that one must have unimaginable riding skill or an innate affinity with them to even dream of riding one.

            And Rider sits astride the animal like it’s only natural.
            The armored red dragon snarls at the enemies of its master, and Rider doesn’t even have the space to hold its reins as both his arms are occupied with his weapon and his own Master, whose body is supported against his own.

            …Oh.
            The sight is so fearsome that I can’t look away.
            Rider and his Master’s intent to kill is directed entirely towards the other Servants, and as it’s not focused on me, I can appreciate from a distance.
            Come to think of it, that scythe in his hand is a weapon much better suited to being wielded from the back of some kind of mount than from on foot.
            I’ve used sickles and scythes a few times to help farm, and so I know what an awkward and unwieldy thing that type of weapon can be despite its cutting power.
            But Rider is high enough off the ground that he can swing his weapon one-handed in big cycles and get extra force of momentum behind it.
            …Furthermore, his Master is protected against him and behind the dragon’s head, and will probably have room to cast offensive spells with impunity.
            The two men on the back of the dragon together form a killing machine with no readily apparent weaknesses.

            …None of the attacks of the other Servants and Masters were effective.
            Assassin’s crossbow bolt and Caster’s Master’s bullet may just have melted in the great fire that Rider used to summon his dragon.
            As for all of the spells—probably, Rider has a high-ranking magic nullification skill.
            All of the great knight classes of Servant—that is to say, Saber, Archer, Lancer, and Rider all have defense against magecraft, and it would take an obscene kind of grand thaumaturgy or very highly-ranked skills to scratch him.
            Even Caster, who I can tell is from an earlier age than these modern magi and is a strong Servant, must not have high enough of a rank in the spell she cast to do him any damage.

            …And I’m sure that all those Masters must have known better.
            But if they were aiming for Rider’s Master, their plan was a failure, as he is too well protected by Rider and the dragon to hit.

            As I’m thinking this.
            As I’m sure that all the other Masters and Servants watching this spectacle are thinking the same.

 

            “—Nessiah, your orders?”
            Rider’s voice rings clear and confident and tense.
            Watching only the battlefield ahead of him, controlling and directing the dragon he rides by pressure exerted from his legs on its sides alone, Rider addresses his Master.

            It’s far away.
            But I can still see the Master named Nessiah close his dark eyes.
            “———Blow them away.”

            In that instant.
            Rider swings his arm up, holding his scythe aloft, and there’s a swell of prana in the air like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
            Even the ritual to summon Heckler was nowhere near this insane.

            “Don’t tell me—his Noble Phantasm—?!”
            Caster’s Master yells, but it’s already—

 

            “—Prominence!!”
            Rider invokes the name of his weapon.
            And when he swings it down, the whole intersection is blotted out with fire.

            The whole intersection is blotted out with fire, but—

            “Rhapsodia—!”
            A clear girl’s voice rings like a bell, and the fire is split with a pillar of light.

            Everything is lit up like the day, and I have to close my eyes until it passes.

            “—”

            When I can look again.
            The only figures remaining in the intersection are Saber, breathing painfully so that her shoulders are heaving, and her Master.
            Little lights like fistfuls of glitter keep descending, like the remaining embers of Rider’s attack and Saber’s have melted together into tiny, flashing filaments of light.
            It’s beautiful, like stardust is raining down.
            …The ground seems scorched here and there, but I don’t see any corpses, and so—

            “…Tch, so in the end they all ran away.”
            Saber’s Master says so scornfully, speaking my own theory out loud.
            “And you even wound up exposing your Noble Phantasm for them all to get a good look at, too… This is pathetic.”

            “—I apologize, Rosary.”
            Saber straightens up and turns to face her Master, so that I can see her face clearly for the first time.
            …She’s really beautiful.
            She has all that height, and illuminated by the little flickers, the part of her face that is left uncovered by that helmet is youthful and clear.
            “Even so, if I had not countered Rider’s attack with that much strength, your life might have been in danger.”

            …What Saber’s saying is correct.
            Once a Servant has used their Noble Phantasm, which is supposed to be their ultimate trump card, you can’t expect to escape unscathed unless you meet their ante.
            All the same, the magus named Rosary runs a hand through her long hair disdainfully.

            “—Hmph.
            “Maybe that’s true, but I don’t like it!
            “If you had to expose yourself, then I would have preferred a victory at least.”
            She sighs as if to proclaim, Ah, how useless.

            “Honestly, the other Masters are fools too. Sneaking around and waiting for an opening, then running off when things get too hot for them to deal with, that’s cowardly.
            “Don’t they have any pride as magi? It’s enough to make me sick just watching.”
            Rosary continues to complain, as if only by airing her grudges can she keep herself from getting ulcers or the like.

            “—Given the combat capabilities of the Servants Assassin and Caster, it is possible that they had no other choice.
            “At the very least, both Rider and I are probably capable of overwhelming either of them in close-range combat.”
            “—I know that!
            “Geez, these other Masters just won’t let us pick them off so easily, even when they’re full of openings.”
            Rosary clucks her tongue in annoyance.
            She just keeps throwing her grievances and rough words at her Servant, and I can’t decide whether she looks foolishly petty or dangerous doing it.

            “…We should retreat for the day.
            “Other Masters may yet see the signs of battle and come to investigate, thinking an already exhausted victor to be an easy target.”
            “—I know!!
            “Who’s the Master and who’s the Servant here?! You don’t need to tell me something so obvious!!
            “Hmph, we’re going back.”

            And she goes off striding all by herself.
            Saber remains still for a moment, cautiously looking around the neighborhood, but goes to follow her Master a few moments later.

            “—”
            …I can tell that it’s no good trying to follow them.
            Saber’s Master is spoiling for a fight, and Saber herself is on guard against enemy attacks.
            So I wait until I can’t sense either of them anymore, and then push myself up to sit on the roof without crouching, and sign to Heckler that we’re going back to the hotel.

 

            “Then, I’ll take you there quickly.”

            His voice echoes in my ears, just for me.
            I nod, and relax as my Servant becomes corporeal.
            —We’ll be taking the return journey at a pace so fast no one will be able to find or follow us.

 

            By the time we return to the hotel room, it’s already past one in the morning.

            “—For all that it was our first time out on patrol, there certainly was a lot to see.”
            While I’m in the bedroom changing clothes, Heckler talks from the kitchenette.
            …Obviously I can’t reply like this, but I agree, so I’ll let him talk.
            “After observing the four enemy Servants, there is a lot to consider, and I’m sure that you have your own thoughts on all of this as well.
            “Especially after we were able to witness two of the Servants’ Noble Phantasms.
            “It’s just that…”

            Heckler’s voice trails off.
            I pause in pulling the bells and ribbons out of my hair and wait.

            “—I think I may know Saber’s identity.
            “And if I’m correct—then she’ll be a dangerous opponent to face later on.”

            ……?
            I’m not sure, because he’s in the other room and I can’t see his face.
            And besides, this Servant has only been at my side for one day.
            So I can’t really tell what the hesitation in his voice is coming from.

            Even when I go back into the kitchen.
            Heckler’s face is calm and unreadable.

            —Do you need to rest too?

            He looks back up at me.
            …He seems to be normal, but I don’t think that that was just my imagination.
            “No, as long as I’m in spirit form.
            “Go ahead to sleep. I’m going to keep watch outside.”

            —All right, then I’ll leave it to you.

 

            I turn the lights off and get into bed.
            It is late and the bed is warm, so despite all the things I should be thinking about, I go to sleep quickly without problems.

Chapter Text

            “—”
            And I wake up without dreaming.
            …It’s morning.
            The light coming through the curtains tells me that it’s already past dawn.
            So much for jet lag and the like.
            My head is fuzzy and my arms and legs feel heavy and ache as though I’ve been doing strenuous exercise all yesterday.
            I’m not confused the way that I was yesterday morning, and at least I’m able to wake up in bed instead of on the open rooftop in the middle of winter, but with or without Heckler supporting me, my body is complaining about climbing all over roofs while we were spying on the battles last night.

            “—”
            A shower comes first.
            I’m hungry, but I wasn’t able to get clean last night, so I should wash off the sweat before I change into new clothes.
            Also, I think my muscles will complain at me less if I soak them in warm water.
            Back at home, we sometimes had to conserve water, but here in the hotel I can take as many showers and baths as I want, so I should take advantage of that.
            Plus, as I find out when I try running the shower, here I can have hot water that actually stays hot after the first five minutes.
            That’s pretty nice.

            I change into fresh clothes and decide to leave my hair down until it dries out more.
            There should still be soup leftovers from last night, so I can heat that up for breakfast.

            …I think that Servants are pretty useful people to have around.
            But continually having trouble waking up in the morning because Heckler’s prana comes from me isn’t something I like or want to learn to live with.

            “Good morning, Master!”
            …Uwaaah, there’s a disgustingly cheerful person here.
            Heckler, who was apparently in spirit form while I showered and made myself breakfast, appears with a face as radiant as the sun.
            He keeps beaming at me as I stare without comprehension.
            Moja perches on my shoulder and preens my hair.
            …I can tell that if someone doesn’t step in and hold these two back, terrible things will happen.
            B-but I’m tired.
            Can’t someone else do it?

            “Is that all you’re having for breakfast?
            “That’s no good, a growing teenager needs sweet things in the morning to jumpstart the brain.
            “There should at least be vending machines in this building, so do you at least want to go buy a fruit juice?”

            …Actually, I don’t think I’m even awake yet.
            Because this has to be some kind of nightmare.

 

            “Here.”
            Heckler smiles and hands me the plastic packet of grape juice.
            I twist the plastic cap off and drink the juice through the small opening in the package.
            These super-modern juice packages are a little difficult to figure out, but the sweet juice tastes good.
            …A boost to the blood sugar isn’t quite as good as caffeine to start a day off, but I can’t afford to be picky, and I do feel more awake.

            I commend my Servant for a mission well-completed and finish my juice.
            Moja has been sent out the window to get a chance to fly and scout around, and so Heckler and I are alone for the moment.
            He watches me as I slowly coax my mind into functioning with the same smile on his face.

            —What?

            In the end I can’t just endure the staring, and wind up having to ask.

            Heckler startles like he himself didn’t realize his own expression.
            “—Ahaha, I’m sorry.”
            He grins sweet-naturedly and scratches at his cheek.
            “It’s just that—you know, when I was alive, the order of knights I was in was half women, you see?
            “And women tended to complete their training as knights earlier, maybe just because they tended to enroll earlier too, but even though the men tended to be around twenty or so at the youngest—there were a lot of girls who were around your age.
            “And so you just reminded me of them a little—my comrades, that is.
            “Even though we were the army, and even though the kingdom had a lot of problems with politics and racial tensions and factional disputes and such—I think it’s actually impossible for a scenery filled with energetic girls to not be cheerful.
            “It’s not relaxing the same way that wilderness and little animals are, but it’s still kind of hopeful and nice.
            “Sorry for thinking something weird.”

            …Hmm.
            Honestly, comparing me to the knight kingdom leaves me with mixed feelings.
            The atmosphere of camaraderie and companionship that Heckler describes doesn’t sound bad, but all the same, that’s the right arm of the government that’s keeping my people poor and oppressed even now.

            “Ah…”
            Heckler makes a sound and buries his fingertips in his hair, as if only now realizing his mistake.
            He makes a troubled expression and looks at me.

            “—Vienya.”
            My body gets tense as soon as he says my name.
            …Why?
            I’ve never reacted like that to Vilgo-sama or Moja or the villagers calling me.
            It’s not like he’s pronouncing it wrong or anything.
            …I guess it must just be that I’m not used to his presence yet.
            Even though we’re Master and Servant, Heckler is a strange boy I’ve only just met, one who is only a few years older than me.
            I’ve never thought of myself as particularly sensitive to boys paying attention to me, but that must be because I already knew all my fellow villagers, and other young men are either enemies or inconsequential to me.
            So maybe if the boy from two days ago had known my name and called it like this, that would have affected me strongly too.

            …Or maybe it’s just because it’s Heckler.
            Maybe I’m paying special attention to him because he is my Servant and we’ll be living together for the rest of this Holy Grail War.
            …Maybe I should just stop trying to overanalyze it, as the fact still is that his saying my name makes my heart rate rise and my body go tense and still.

            “—Have you always had trouble waking up in the morning?”

            …………
            …Yes, there’s no point in working myself up over this guy.
            This isn’t the kind of conversation between different sexes that makes the pulse pound.

            —No.
            Unless there’s something wrong, when I wake up, I’m awake.

            I sign back to him.
            In response, Heckler scratches his chin and makes a troubled face.

            “—Then, unless you’ve suddenly gotten sick with really bad timing…”

            —Yes, it would be because of prana loss.

            There’s no point in beating around the bush.

            —Either I’ll adjust, or we’ll just have to factor it into our strategies in the future.
            Even if I was okay with having you eat souls to lessen the burden on myself, I don’t have any confidence that we could pull off that many murders or attacks on civilians without the supervisor of the war coming after us, so it’s just impractical.
            Besides, what we heard during the fight last night is concerning.
            Rider’s Master said that the supervisor of this war is crooked, so I think we should avoid contact with them if at all possible.

            “…Mmm, that’s very true.
            “For what it’s worth, I am a knight and don’t want to attack people either, but I’m glad that you can be practical about it.
            “But that is worrying in terms of the future.
            “I can minimize the burden on you by remaining in spirit form unless we need to communicate face to face, but given my general ranking as a Servant…”

            …I know.
            Compared to the Servants we saw last night, I don’t think that Heckler is actually so impressive.
            Well, Saber and Rider were probably high-ranking Servants, but even Caster and Assassin were at an average ability level.
            Whereas Heckler is a little-known Servant, which affects his average parameters anyway.
            And given that both he and I are long-range fighters, if we can’t deal with this war strategically we don’t have any chance of victory.

 

            —Since you’ve already brought the topic up, I think we should take this chance to discuss what we saw yesterday and talk about what to do from here on out.

            “—”
            The somewhat silly air of the previous discussion vanishes.
            Heckler sobers all at once.

            “—All right.
            “Then, Master, where do you want to start?”

            —First is about the two Servants whose Noble Phantasms we saw.
            I haven’t heard of Rider’s Noble Phantasm, but I’m sure that with all that we know about him already, we ought to be able to find something if we do research.

            Heckler nods.
            “What I can add to that is that he has very high specs as a Servant.
            “How much of that is natural ability and how much is just having a strong magus for a Master, I don’t know, but if we take on Rider with no plan, we’d have no way of winning.”

            —We can wait to see if they are defeated by some other Servant, but it would be pretty troubling if another Servant showed up that could defeat them just like that, too.
            Anyway, when the time comes to do battle with Rider, we’ll have to gather information and try to set up some kind of situation where we have the advantage over them.
            Then, next would be Saber.
            I didn’t recognize her Noble Phantasm either, but it seems that she’s also a strong Servant…

            Heckler narrows his eyes.
            “—I know who she is.”

            That’s interesting.
            Her Noble Phantasm wasn’t well-known enough for me to recognize it, so Heckler does.
            That implies that either she’s old enough that he had heard of her during his life, or that she is also affiliated with the Land of a Hundred Heroes.
            …Though, if that’s the case, shame on me for not knowing who she is either.

            “It’s not strange for you not to know.
            “Saber’s main Noble Phantasm—which is to say, her real trump card and the key to her identity isn’t her sword.
            “She has another Noble Phantasm that she’s withholding.”

            ……Servants with multiple Noble Phantasms.
            From my perspective that’s unfair, because Heckler only has the one.
            But Servants who were heroes with multiple famous weapons or special techniques sometimes have more than one Noble Phantasm, it’s true.

            “Her true identity is Maria.
            “—She’s the angel who saved my king and fought at his side as he led us in combat against the demon god Zolgonark.”

            …………
            …I am momentarily left unable to think.

            Maria.
            She’s one of the two heroes that my country is best known for.
            Part of the big incident that led to the hundred knights becoming Heroic Spirits came from an angel being sent down to heaven to judge my own people for trying to rebuild the tower of Babel.
            The angel wished for power out of a sense of unworthiness, and was taken advantage of by the demon god, her soul split in half.
            One half was kept as the demon’s slave, and the other became the valkyrie Maria, who salvaged the soul of the Lionhearted King and fought as his right arm as the king rallied the empty bodies of his soldiers.
            At the end of the battle she was restored to her full powers, and thus restored the king and all the people to their bodies.
            The story goes that she returned to the realm of the gods and accepted her punishment for letting a demon sway her.

            If that’s the case, then it’s no wonder that I didn’t recognize Saber just because of her sword.
            The valkyrie Maria is best known for her sunset-colored wings.
            It was recorded that ordinarily she looked like a human, but during the darkest hour, she could assume her full strength—and only when unleashing her most powerful attacks could she manifest her wings.
            …If that’s true, then that must be her main Noble Phantasm.
            No, if that wasn’t considered a Noble Phantasm, it would be very strange.

            “…With that being the case, it would be very difficult to win against her head-on.”
            Heckler says something fatalistic and sighs up towards the ceiling.

            “We were part of the same army, and so she would know what I’m capable of.
            “On top of which, she’s a different level of being than me.
            “Rider is some kind of Heroic Spirit amazing enough to ride dragons, so he must be affiliated with them.
            “And Saber is an angel, another powerful fantasy race.
            “I’m a Heroic Spirit and all too, but I’m just a human, after all.”

            Hmm.
            I’m surprised to see Heckler complain.
            But then, he saw Saber fight up close when they were alive, so I guess it’s only natural for him to be so awed and impressed by her.
            His own feelings from “before he was a hero” remain.

            —Then in that case, if we ever had to fight them, I think our main chance would be exploiting her Master.

            “Oh?”
            Heckler looks at me.

            —Saber’s Master didn’t seem to be a very good one.
            Saber was obedient, but her Master seemed to have a difficult personality and kept making selfish demands of her.
            So if Saber keeps trying to follow the whims of such a Master, and her Master is proud and foolish, I can see it being possible that her Master might make a mistake.
            The problem would still be trying to create a situation that’s advantageous, and how to engineer such a mistake into happening.
            I think that just like Rider, Saber is a Servant that we can only defeat as we are now after a lot of observing and planning.

            “I see, that makes sense.”
            Heckler is following along with my assertions and nodding.
            He’s an experienced knight and older than me, but that he treats my suggestions like they have worth makes me a little happy.

            —So that leaves Caster and Assassin, whose Noble Phantasms we didn’t get to see.

            “Most Assassins are supposed to be either the Hassans—the old men of the mountain from the Middle East.
            “But judging from her appearance, the Assassin in this war is different.”

            Heckler’s words are certainly true.
            She had lighter skin than you would expect someone living in a Middle Eastern country, and she wasn’t dressed like a Japanese ninja either, which is the other thing that immediately comes to mind when someone talks about assassins.
            But then, assassins aren’t all like thieves or spies sneaking in the night, and there are any number of ways that you could theoretically assassinate a target.
            So, if someone summoned an Assassin with a catalyst not related to a Hassan or a ninja, it’s easy to imagine that a different hero could be utilized in that class.

            “Judging from her appearance, I don’t think she’ll be able to utilize the Assassin class specialty of stealth as efficiently as one of the old men of the mountain would.
            “So in that regard, if we were to challenge her it would be a more equal battle.
            “I think that some of her statistics are superior to mine, but since she’s also a long-range fighter, we could at least fight on the same terms.”

            —Her Master was also wearing a school uniform.
            Because of that, we have a lead on investigating her.
            If we can find the school that has that uniform, we can search for clues about Assassin’s Master and look for a weakness or a personality trait that we could take advantage of.

            Heckler nods.
            “And last, there’s Caster.
            “I don’t know what to make of her as a Servant.
            “Her statistics seem to be about average in most categories from what I could tell, but we don’t know how strong her magic is.
            “As one of the three knight classes, I have natural magical resistance, but it’s not actually very strong and can be influenced by the situation or area I fight in.
            “But fighting Caster would probably also be a long-range battle.
            “The problem is her Master.
            “It would depend on what you think you can do against guns.”

            —Plus, we don’t have as many leads on Caster’s Master as we do on Assassin’s.
            She looks to be about the same age as the Master of Assassin, but she wasn’t wearing a school uniform and she may not even be native-born Japanese.

            “I think that about sums up the report on what we found out last night.”
            Heckler folds his arms and tilts his head to the side.

            —Since we have clues and we know that we might be able to fight Caster or Assassin on equal terms, I want to spend today using Moja to gather information about those two Masters.
            Then, when night falls, we can decide whether we want to go after one of those two, or try to investigate the Servants we haven’t seen yet.

            “Berserker and Lancer… huh.”
            Heckler nods.
            Like me, he’s probably thinking that both of those Servants also sound like enemies that would be trouble if we let them get close to us.
            Most likely, if we want to take them on, we will need information about the both of them so that we can find a way to turn the battles in our favor.

 

            …So.
            With that decided, Heckler returns to spirit form and I return to my room.
            When I’m using Moja as a familiar and looking through his eyes, it’s best if my body is undisturbed, and so I’ll use the bed to lie down on to keep my body comfortable anyway.

 

            I turn on my Magic Crest, bear the discomfort, and send my mind to join with Moja’s.

 

            With my mind riding over his shoulder, we fly up into the sky and get a panorama of the whole city of Fuyuki.
            Miyama is the more suburban district, and so it makes sense somehow to start looking for high schools there.
            I have Moja follow the lines of roads, and before long we arrive at a place with the same uniform that the girl was wearing.
            …That’s pretty lucky.
            Even luckier, the students seem to be on break and are milling around on the grounds and the hallways.
            As I’m having Moja circle around in the sky—a figure with light-colored hair appears on the rooftop.

            She looks around as if to check that she’s alone, and motions with her hands.
            I can’t see it, but I can feel it through Moja as a light boundary field goes up on the school rooftop.
            I have Moja perch in the branches of a nearby tree and not approach any further.
            It would be stupid to have him go closer and get injuries from the boundary field as I try to examine it.
            As it is, Moja can still see and hear what’s happening inside the barrier, and therefore I can too; even if it’s the kind that blocks out humans and human senses, it won’t work on a bird.

            After the boundary field is finished.
            A woman with red hair—Assassin appears next to the light-haired student.

            “—Are you sure that was a good idea, Mimee?
            “I’d think that having an enemy in a place so close would make it unsafe.”

            “I’m saying it’ll be fine.”
            Even though she’s disagreeing with her Servant, the Master named Mimee laughs and smiles brightly, like the sunshine.
            “I know all the magi who go to this place pretty well, so I can vouch for her character at least to some extent.
            “And besides, this school is a public area.
            “She’s a magus with a proper magus mentality, and so just like me she wouldn’t think of starting a battle in a place like this—well, I do guess it’d be different if we met here at night when no one was around.
            “But during the day this is neutral ground.
            “And for a student, going to school is important to maintaining appearances, you know?—If I don’t at least show up, Aura will worry.
            “I don’t want that—she doesn’t really know what’s happening here, after all.”

            Assassin crosses her arms and raises her eyebrows in what’s clearly an “I don’t buy it” face.
            “Even if she is someone you know, you can’t always be certain that she’ll play fair.
            “—It’s pretty common for people you trust to stab you in the back over rewards that are less enticing than the Holy Grail, so I’d watch out for that.”

            “Mmm…”
            The Master called Mimee turns around.
            Her body language is very relaxed and she doesn’t seem to be taking any umbrage at her Servant’s complaints.
            “I’d say that we’ve always been more like rivals than friends… If she intended to backstab me she’d have done it before now, I think.
            “Even if I didn’t trust in her specifically, I’d trust in her own sense of pride and integrity.
            “—Besides, you’ll still be with me wherever I go, and even if I don’t doubt her, you’ll be suspicious for me.”
            Rather, her tone of voice is full of affection.

            “It would be nice if you’re right.”
            Assassin shrugs her shoulders and sighs as if to say that her Master is hopeless.
            But her banter is lighthearted enough given the subject matter.

 

            Bells ring throughout the courtyard, and Assassin disappears.
            Mimee returns to the inside of the building as the students all head back to their classes.
            …Even so, this is a big school.

            I keep having Moja follow Mimee around for the rest of the day.
            There aren’t any other incidences that she talks to her Servant.
            When the school day ends, she leaves the building right away and walks to one of the residential districts.
            With Moja following at a distance, I map the route in my head.

            As far as I can tell, she doesn’t notice our presence.

 

            It’s already getting to be the end of the day.
            While there’s still light, I should see if I can find any traces of Caster’s Master—

 

            Even though I say that, it takes a while to track her down.
            I find the site of the battle last night and gauge where Caster and her Master must have been based on my own hiding place, and head in that general direction.
            It isn’t much to go on, but I can at least scope out any hotels and such that these roads lead to, just based on the girl’s hair color.
            Assuming that she’s foreign just because she has red hair seems a little silly given that Mimee is blond and yet goes to school in this town, but at least it’s a guess.
            If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong, and I’ll have to look elsewhere.
            At least today won’t be a total waste of time no matter what happens.

 

            In the end, I wind up just having Moja follow the big bridge back to Shinto.
            We still watch the ground below us, but the sky is increasingly red, and we’re going to lose the light soon.
            This city is filled with people, and so it’s basically asking the impossible to find one person without any idea of where to look—

            But as we pass over the wide “park” that has nothing in it but dead land.
            There’s a familiar girl sitting on the bench, talking on a cell phone.

            I have Moja circle for a bit and then land in a tree, near enough to hear the girl but not who she’s talking to.

            “—oh honestly, I don’t need to get a lecture like this from you of all people, old man.
            “Who do you think has been filing your taxes for the past five years?”

            It’s unmistakably the Master of Caster.
            Not just because her short red hair is so distinctive, but because I don’t know of anyone else that might be carrying concealed revolver holsters in a place like this.
            Civilians aren’t supposed to be able to get firearm licenses in Japan, right?
            …Aside from that, she seems relaxed at first glance, but she’s seated so that she will be able to get up and face any intruder immediately.
            Her back is to a tree, and she’s minimized her blind spots really deliberately.
            With a Servant keeping guard over her, she should be ready to take on attack from any direction.

            “I’m more worried about my Servant than anything.
            “Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one here who’s actually taking the Grail War seriously.”

            “Hey Elisha, what does that mean?”
            …Suddenly.
            There’s a girl standing on the other side of the tree where no one was before.
            She’s dressed in modern clothes, but it’s unmistakably Caster.
            Moja’s feathers puff out immediately at the presence of a Servant so close.
            …He’s probably reacting to my own tension more than anything else.

            “It means that you need to get back to keeping watch!”
            The red-haired girl, Elisha, glares death at her Servant.
            Caster puffs her cheeks out and falls silent sulkily, but doesn’t dematerialize.

            “Anyway, it’s not like there’s any problem with her ability level, and I understand that even over the black market, our choices for artifacts were limited…
            “But yeah, I have my worries about this kid’s personality.”
            Elisha jabs a thumb in her Servant’s direction without looking at her, and Caster sticks out her tongue like a child.

            “But no, we’re fine other than that.
            “And yeah, I’ll keep you updated and everything if something goes wrong.
            “—Honestly, it’s just like you to get worked up like this.
            “Try trusting me more.
            “And I really don’t want to come back to see you drinking through all our savings—it’s not like the Holy Grail is an endless fountain of money.
            “Even if it were, so much new currency would wreck its own market value—”

            She sighs and hangs up after nagging her conversation partner.

            “Damn brainless father figure.”
            With that, Elisha stands up and brushes off her skirt.
            “—Come on, Caster.”

            “Elisha, not until you tell me what you mean when you were complaining before!”
            Caster sulks valiantly.
            In response, Elisha just shrugs her shoulders and sighs again.
            “—Hey, you know that if anybody actually saw you suddenly appear, we would have to kill them all right now, right?
            “And then we’d have to kill anyone who saw that.”

            Caster’s brow furrows.
            “Why?”
            “—Because like I told you, magecraft isn’t publicly known in this era.
            “If we don’t want the whole Magic Association coming down on our heads for letting mundanes know about our existence, we’d have to take care of it ourselves.
            “Not to mention, you need to stay hidden or other Servants are gonna find you.
            “We don’t want to get into a fight on somebody else’s terms, do we?”

            “Noooo…”
            Caster draws the word out, still making an unsatisfied face.

            “Well, since you’re out already…”
            Elisha shakes her head.
            “It’d be just as bad if anyone saw you suddenly vanish, so at least try to behave on the way back, okay?”

            “—Oh!!”
            Caster brings her hands up to her chest with an expression that looks excited or inspired.
            “…Elisha, I’m hungry.”
            As Caster deflates and whines, her Master slaps a hand to her forehead.

            “—Sheesh, what am I going to do with you?
            “Are you actually hungry, or do you need fuel?”

            Still complaining at each other, Master and Servant leave the sorry excuse for a park.
            I have Moja tail them at a distance until they reach a hotel that isn’t too far away from the one where I’m staying.

            And just in time for the sun to finally go down, I have Moja return to the hotel room.

 

            “—”
            Even when my consciousness returns to my body, I feel lightheaded.
            It’s probably an aftereffect of having been lying down using magic all day.
            …Anyway, everything I was able to find out will go to waste unless we discuss it, so I shut my eyes and give the line connecting me to Heckler a mental tug.

            …My lightheadedness gets worse as soon as Heckler appears.
            Uwaaah, this is going to be a pain.

            I relay the things that I found out to Heckler, who nods seriously.
            …Moja isn’t present.
            Since I’ve been using him as my eyes all day, he needs to replenish his energy, so it’s best to just leave him alone for a little while to scavenge and hunt.
            Besides, even though he’s protected against magic, Moja is a lot less conspicuous as a familiar when I’m not actively doing something magical with him.

            “—So that’s the situation…”
            Heckler tilts his head to one side and then the other.
            “Vienya.
            “What are your plans on what to do next?”

            …He’s asking me?
            I—

 

            —I think we should focus on eliminating Caster first.

            Heckler nods.
            “Why do you think so?”

            —Assassin should also be an option, but judging by the conversation that she had with her Master, there’s a second Master at their school that they know of.
            That’s an unknown element, which means that we have to tread with caution until we understand that situation.
            So as long as we’re sitting around needing to do more reconnaissance there, we might as well attack the enemy that we’re surer of.

            Heckler watches me sign until I’m finished and nods.
            “…Yeah, I think that’s good reasoning.
            “Then, tomorrow we’ll do that.”

            …Eh?

            —Why tomorrow?

            Heckler smiles awkwardly.
            “Come on.
            “There’s no way that you can go out and fight when you’re tired from using magic all day.
            “Besides, you need to eat something.”

            …Hm.
            That’s probably correct, but there’s nothing left here to eat.
            And I don’t want to deal with vending machines, so—

 

            I have to get Heckler to make the phone call.

            Looking up local take-out restaurants on a computer in the lobby, I decided that I wanted to eat kimchi.
            It would be cheap for the amount of food, and I thought that maybe eating something spicy would make me feel more lively.
            But in the end the restaurant had no order by email option, and going out to walk by myself (or so it would appear) seemed like asking for unnecessary trouble.
            So, I make Heckler make the phone call after writing down the number, and he copies down the time that the food will arrive.
            The phone call is an absolute mess that involves a lot of signing between both of us and frantic scribbling from Heckler, as it turns out that Heckler does not know the hotel’s street address.

            …I do eventually get the kimchi, but it’s not as if the spice can put back everything that exchange took out of me.

            “Master, they say that happiness always escapes when you sigh.”
            Heckler, beside me, is still trying to be positive, or maybe to soften the mood.
            “So—hey, now…”

            He must finally take the hint that I’m not in the mood for conversation.
            It only took my flipping him off, so that’s something.
            …But it’s exhausting.
            I throw out the empty boxes, turn the lights off, and collapse onto the bed.

 

            It’s not that I want to be able to speak.
            If someday I become able to speak again, well, that’s fine in and of itself, but just that I won’t have to deal with the inconveniences doesn't mean that those inconveniences are justified in existing.
            They’ll still exist, just for “other people”.
            So it’s not that I wish I were able to speak in order to escape.

            No.
            I’m just annoyed that no matter where I go, it seems as though the entire world thinks that people without a “voice” must have nothing to say—

            Heckler must have gone back into spirit form.
            Without unnecessary burdens on my body, and with the hot fast food at least alleviating physical discomfort, I am angry about things I cannot change until I go to sleep.