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vierzehn

 

 

            What were lies, and what was truth?

            As I am now—... I don’t even know that.

 

            What should I do?

            What should I believe?

 

            I don’t know anymore.

 

 

            But, I can say at least this.

            With pride, and with honesty.

 

 

            No matter what—... I will protect you.

 

            So, please.

 

 

            Call my name.

 

 

            vierzehn ~ (Käfig) ~ 】

 

 

            The breeze that brushed over my skin blended gunpowder smoke with the smell of blood, and seemed more somber than usual.

 

            The area before my eyes was enshrouded by a mass of black smoke. Screams and trails of magical light colored the sky, that was once so blue and clear, with despair and turmoil.

 

            As of today, since I came to the area near the castle that had become a battlefield—... two days had passed.

 

 

            The situation didn’t seem good. I slowly advanced through the city.

 

            The streets that had shown such prosperity were now shadows of their former selves; rubble, clouds of dust, and great rising pillars of flame that laid them bare.

 

            I wanted to close my eyes at the sight. Firmly holding back the tears that threatened to fall, I looked up at the sky. ... As if to cover what lay beyond, the clouds still spread across the sky.

 

            Pipi.

 

            Suddenly, I heard a small noise. —... It seemed that someone was requesting a communications line. Confirming there were no enemies around me, I hid in the shadows as much as I could and opened the connection.

 

            The insignia of the contacting squad burst onto the screen, and the figure of a rather tired-looking male commander appeared.

 

            “The situation over there is...?”

            “... Not very good. Because of the enemy army’s pincer attack... the west has almost fallen.”

 

            At those words, I unconsciously bit my lip.

 

            “Are the townspeople safe? Their rescue?”

            “One of our squads is already working on it. Please continue to the front line with your squad.”

            “... Thank you. I’m entrusting them to you.”

 

            Don’t let anyone die. At those murmured words, I nodded deeply. Of course I understood. ... After all, there’s no such thing as an expendable life.

 

            “I leave it to you.”

            “Understood.”

 

            Ending the brief telepathy, I soared up into the sky at maximum speed. The skies were, as usual, a vortex of magical lights swirling together in the air.

 

            ... The farther I headed south, the more terrible the battle situation became.

 

            I gradually descended from high-altitude flight, switching to low-altitude flight. The sun that had been floating in the sky until a few days ago now hid itself from view among the clouds.

 

            Ahh, it looks like rain.

            —... That was what I thought.

 

            “Captain Fate! Twelve o’clock, allied units are engaged!”

            “We’re backing them up! ... I’ll distract them, so in the meantime, take the wounded into the castle!”

 

            “Nuuaaaaaaaaa!”

 

            As I spoke those words, a wail resounded, drowning them out. A roar split the air, and a shockwave of enormous sword force ran through the sky.

 

            I forced myself into its trajectory, barely getting my shield up in time. The magic, obstructed from its target, dispersed, and the ground where it struck caved in before vanishing.

 

            “Captain Fate!”

            “... My squad will assist as well. What’s the situation?”

            “They are believed to be mage knights from the enemy kingdom. There are about 70 remaining.”

 

            Beyond the rising smoke, I could see the figures of enough knights to completely fill the sky. The magical energy they exuded was almost abnormal.

 

            Each one is... obviously higher than Rank A. Since this is a battlefield, that isn’t strange. But... why, at this inessential position... are there so many of them?

 

            Were they deployed with the knowledge that the front lines would be thin? ... Or, are there still other knights with high magical potential?

 

            ... Impossible. Such a thing.

 

            While deflecting the bullets of light that rained down, I circled around wide. Drawing them just barely into my range, I fired back.

 

            In that moment—... there was a metallic sound.

 

            From the right arm that had been crushed by a direct hit from my light bullets, a countless number of wires peered out.

 

 

            “It can’t be... They’re all... combat, cyborgs...?”

 

 

            ... How? Their production should require advanced technology.

 

            Even our kingdom still hasn’t even reached the test application stage. ... Despite that, just where... did that small kingdom get such technology?

 

            Disregarding my astonishment, they continued toward me.

 

            “Plasma Lancer.”

 

            While spreading a shield I turned my body, with the least amount of movement possible.

 

            “Fire!”

 

            Opening as much distance as possible, I fired a second time.

            —... Smoke rose, and their bodies fell.

 

            No good... It works, but defeating them with just magical damage takes too much effort. On top of which, it’s alright fighting them one on one, but if I take them all on like this, I’m worried I’ll run out of magical energy before I reach my objective.

 

            ... I can’t let myself be held back here. —... Then, what should I do?

 

            It’s too late to wait for more reinforcements.

 

            “Fire!”

 

            In the blink of an eye, the bullets of light that revolved in the air around me grew, and flew through the sky in a tremendous stream of light.

 

            With an electric noise it headed straight forward, swallowing the knights who obstructed its path. When their bodies were hit sparks flew, and they fell powerlessly.

 

            The mist before my eyes vanished, and my vision gradually became clear. By the time it cleared completely, I could count the remaining number with both hands.

 

            “Captain Fate, all units neutralized on this end.”

            “In combat here, Rank A mage knights... about 10 remaining.”

 

            “Nuuh, aaaa-!”

            “—..., ku-”

 

            I knocked away the bullets of light headed toward me. ... There were too many of them. The bodies of my fighting subordinates were steadily staining red. ... I could tell that a number of them had already depleted their magical energy.

 

            Ejected empty shell casings fell to the ground as though being sucked down.

 

 

            The sound of something breaking apart.

 

            Hardly paying attention to that, I maneuvered to attract the enemy to me as much as possible, and shot them down. —... In a sudden instant, before my eyes that were fixed on the enemy, it became dark.

 

            A downpour that felt like being struck rained down on my body.

 

            “... I’m in luck... I think.”

 

            “Everyone, please get some distance.”

            “Understood!”

 

            I confirmed that the allied knights in my field of vision were gone.

 

            “Fire!”

 

            Once more. This time I fired light bullets at a steeply rising cliff. The bombarded location was gouged out widely, and the rock and earth that could no longer bear the weight collapsed, swallowing the nearby mage knights.

 

            Taking the opportunity provided by their halted movements, I loaded a reserve cartridge. My magical aura flared, engulfing my body as I formed a magic circle.

 

            Rain. ... In other words, water.

 

 

            And. The magical energy I bear is—...

 

            “Thunder...!”

 

            lightning.

 

            “Fall!”

 

            Following a flash that dazzled the eye, a thunderous electrical roar engulfed the area. Lightning ran through my enemies faster than usual, their bodies made more conductive by the properties of water.

 

            The flash faded, and as the smoke cleared there was—... an empty sky. Lowering my gaze, I could make out the forms of the feebly falling mage knights.

 

            “... Mission complete. Please take care of the capture of the shot-down knights.”

            “Understood.”

 

            I heaved a sigh.

            —... I may have used a little too much magical energy.

 

            My head throbbed painfully. Ahh—... But, I have to go.

 

            Raising my downturned head, I sensed that bone-chilling presence again. When I turned around, there was—...

 

            “... Very impressive. I didn’t think you’d be able to shoot down that many.”

            “—... You’re...!”

 

            The figure of the woman I saw on my mission the other day was there. She smiled the same sort of smile as that time, as she called out in a cheerful voice.

 

            “... Captain Fate?”

            “Leave this to me—... Everyone else go on ahead.”

            “But...!”

 

            “Please. Don’t let... anyone else... die.”

 

            Without breaking my gaze from the woman facing me, I told them this.

 

            “... Understood.”

 

            The presences behind me faded, and the surroundings fell entirely silent. All I could hear was the sound of falling rain, and my breathing.

 

            “Hehe... Fate-ojousama. Just how long do you intend to do this?”

            “—... I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

            At those words, her laughing again became louder. In an instant, my head again began to throb in pain. The pulsing pain ran through my entire body.

 

            I felt a pressure, as if her gaze were crushing my heart.

 

            “... Is it really so comfortable over there?”

            “... I asked you, what are you talking about?”

 

            —... It was painful. As if my stomach was being twisted and torn, it hurt.

 

            Supporting my frozen and shaking right hand with my left, I readied Bardiche. In spite of the blade thrust against her throat, the woman smiled without moving.

 

            “She’s waiting, you know? Precia-sama, I mean.”

            “—... Don’t say that name!”

 

            [Fate]

 

            —... Again, I began to hear that voice.

 

            It hurts. It hurts.

 

            “... Ah, agu..., don’t, re-mem-ber!”

 

            It hurts, it hurts, it hurts.

 

 

            “It’s, no good. Stop..., please... don’t, remember.”

 

            [I want to go home]

 

            —... The voice of a young girl.

 

            “Hehehe.... My. Precia-sama sealed you a little too strongly.”

            Don’t, re-mem... ber!”

 

 

            [Mother]

 

 

            Gu, ahh..., don’t remember, don’t remember!”

 

            No matter how much I tried to hold down my pained chest, shook my head to clear the voice, or writhed about. —... That voice that resounded from my center, pleaded to my brain as if grieving.

 

            “Fate-ojousama. Endurance is poison, you know?”

 

            The pendant at my breast, burned. Not the one that matched with Nanoha, but the other one. ... The one that I had been grasping when I was taken in, that pendant with the old coin.

 

            The skin it touched, was hot as if burning.

 

 

            “No, no, no! I’m, I am... I...!”

 

            Many voices resounded within my head. My voice. The voice of that person. The voice of me.

 

            It hurts. —... It hurts.

 

 

            “..., fuh... gu”

 

            Help me. I’m being taken away.

 

            Someone. —... Someone!

 

            My head throbbed in pain. At the edge of my sight the woman’s face distorted drastically. My consciousness became dim. It was starting to stain white.

 

            I, can’t...

 

 

            [Fate-chan]

 

 

            In my mind that had already half given up, suddenly... I thought I heard a voice.

 

            “... Nano, ...”

            [Fate-chan]

 

            That warm voice. That gentle warmth.

 

 

            “... Nanoha.”

 

            That precious smile.

 

 

            “Impossible—... She forced it back down with her will?”

 

            —... The pain from earlier, ebbed as though it hadn’t been real.

 

            As I took a breath to calm my erratic breathing, the woman who had been laughing so hard that her hair was disheveled, was now as expressionless as a mask.

 

            “... You have an extremely stubborn will. So that’s why it hasn’t broken yet.”

            “... Who are you? ... Why do you know my name?”

 

            Placing a hand on her head as if tired, that face distorted slightly. After a moment, she pasted on another entertained grin, which was then turned toward me.

 

            “Fate-ojousama. I am your ally, you know?”

            “I’m not interested in lies.”

 

            I swung Bardiche, which was pointed toward her, downward. At that moment a flash burst out. ... What I saw the next moment was, long fingernail-shaped blades appearing from her fingertips.

 

            The trajectory of the golden light drawn in the air was interrupted at its center, and slowly disappeared.

 

            “—...!”

            “Geez, how impatient.”

 

            The tips of those fingernails touched my neck. I felt a ripping pain, and accompanying it was the slimy sensation of warmth flowing out.

 

            “As proof that I am your ally, I offer you a little present.”

 

            I heard that laughing voice again.

 

            “We want to grant a wish.”

            “... W, ish?”

 

            “Yes, a wish.”

 

            “So.”

 

            “So, we want the stone and the key.”

            “... Stone, and... key?”

 

 

            —... I don’t understand what she’s saying. But, at those words my head again pounded painfully.

 

            “And. Isn’t that why you’re here... Fate-ojousama?”

 

            Pounding, as if scorching, intensely.

 

            “... What are you talking about? What do you know!?”

 

            “Until we meet again,” she laughed as she departed. I couldn’t even pursue her. ... All I could do, was stare.

 

            The falling rain erased the gunpowder smoke staining my body. —... But, it didn’t reach the ache in my chest.

 

 

***

 

 

            That night, a temporary withdrawal order was issued and my squad returned to the castle.

 

            It couldn’t be said that everyone was safe. Many of my subordinates were severely injured, and the beds of the infirmary were immediately filled.

 

            The stinging smell of antiseptic. And the burning pain in my neck. And my chest that hurt much, much more than either of those.

 

            —... I couldn’t get away from that woman’s words.

 

            As I was receiving treatment, I looked out at the sky through the window. Cloudy, and still raining heavily. ... And, as though delighting in that, resounding thunder.

 

            When my treatment was finished, I went to give my report.

 

            “... A woman believed to be with the enemy army, said they want a stone and a key.”

 

            Suppressing the topic of the woman as much as I could, I wrapped up my report.

 

            Then, at my final words, the supreme commander’s eyes widened. “Is that true?” Confirmation was sought, and when I nodded, an emergency communication line was hastily opened.

 

            “... Request for assembly of everyone above the rank of commander. ... I will go call the king. Captain Harlaown. You are to remain here. You’re to attend as a provider of information.”

 

 

            The conference started with an oppressive air. The information that was given there incited astonishment. —... My chest just felt choked and—... in pain.

 

 

            No, it’s a lie.

 

            Round and round my pain swirled. —... I wanted to scream.

 

            To somehow suppress it, I bit down hard on the edge of my lip. Gradually the taste of dull iron spread through my mouth.

 

            It was as if that were telling me that this was reality.

 

            “... Nanoha.”

 

 

            What that woman said. I thought it was just a play on words.

 

            —... But, that wasn’t it.

 

            “... Why, are you,

 

            I remembered that lovely, amiable smile.

 

            Ahh—... What were you feeling when you smiled? Just how much pain were you carrying, how many smiles have you forced when you laughed?

 

            The reason why Nanoha’s guard was more rigid than others, despite her being the youngest princess. The reason why Nanoha couldn’t go outside freely.

 

            The reason why Nanoha couldn’t leave this cage.

 

            “... W-hy-”

 

            It was all contained in that woman’s words.

 

 

            For Nanoha, this wasn’t a cage.

 

 

 

            —... It was a strongly built vault.

 

 

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