“I don’t--” Caster began again. This time instead of being cut off by Gudako or any of the other servants, it was Doctor Roman.
“I think that having Lord El-Melloi II and Alexander go off on their own for this part of the mission makes sense,” he says. “They can get the sultan out of the hands of the crusaders, and the rest of the group can focus on expelling the army from Istanbul.”
DaVinci nodded in agreement. “Unless there are any other objections?”
“One,” Roman said. There was a tiny little crease in his forehead. “Don’t take Vlad. Beyond the possibility of running into himself, he has no love of the Ottomans and might consider working against the mission objective. Plus if his brother, Radu is there...”
Caster was ready to scream. Of course there fucking is! I’m fused with one of the greatest strategists in history and have an anti-army noble phantasm and you have me fucking off to play rescuer, how dense are any of you?! But the scream died on his tongue as everyone else got up from the table they were seated at. Never mind that Doctor Roman was giving him one of those stupid, gentle, understanding smiles that both Lord El-Melloi II and Zhuge Liang had agreed meant that the doctor was up to far more than he let on. He had to be, no one was this...this...normal in the face of Chaldea, Grail War madness, and everything else that this life entailed.
The same words die on Caster’s lips as he watches Alexander, no, watches Rider approach a boarded up stall in the stables of the current palace, the one that will be discarded when the building that will eventually be known as Topkapi Palace is finished.
At least the idea of Rider ignoring him is something Caster is used to. The younger form of Iskandar, King of Conquerors, has been in Chaldea for all of a week and there is precious little difference between the older and younger forms, aside from their builds. Caster blinks, and misses the moment when Rider pries the planks of wood off the stable doors. Without even thinking, he pulls it open, eyes brimming with curiosity.
“There! Now whoever’s in here should be....”
He doesn’t get to finish. There is a great cry from whatever it is within, a noise that could well be the call of a wolf mixed with the distinct ka-kaw of a peacock. Disconcerting, to say the least and the feeling only increases as the inhabitant of the dark space steps forth.
The head of a guard dog perches atop a body that can only be described as part bird, part predatory animal. The feathers are there, all deep blues and iridescent indigos and brilliant greens with a brushing of copper over every hue, but the shape is far more muscular than a bird’s could ever be. Only the tail seems truly bird-like in nature, and is fans out behind the creature in a brilliant array of more blues, this time mixed with purple and flecks of copper. It steps forward, only to be jerked back by the chains around its feet, tying it to the stall.
Rarely does Caster find wonder these days. It is a byproduct of being a mage, where miracles became mundane, frequent occurrences. But this thing, its presence, everything about it sends him into a quiet, awed silence.
The silence is undercut immediately by Rider, whose face is in profile from where Caster stands. It glows with the same kind of wonder and pride that Iskandar’s always did, the expression no different on a youthful face. “It’s a simurgh!” he exclaims, before running forward. Caster shakes his head, like that is what will force him out of his daze, and his eyes alight to the sight of Rider picking at the chains with the tip of his sword.
Sure. Rider has done far more impossible things before.
One by one, the chains slough off the simurgh’s ankles, landing with loud clanks on the ground. “There we go,” Rider says, clearly pleased when the last of the cursed metal objects are gone. “Caster, c’mere!”
The way that Caster’s face looks, the raised eyebrows, the unhappy glare, the pinched nose, all ask if Rider is truly serious. A single nod from the smaller of the two Heroic Spirits confirms that of course he is. So Caster sighs and walks over, wary as the beast lowers its head in order to sniff Rider properly.
Caster stands to Rider’s right side, watching the canine nose move over to sniff at Rider. There’s no doubt in Caster’s mind that he can scoop Rider up and start running if need be, but the thought is dashed. Rider grabs Caster’s hand, and holds it out along with his own for the simurgh to examine.
“We’re friends,” he informs the beast, conversational and upbeat as he pleases. “I’m Alexander, this is Lord El-Melloi II. I was wondering if we could ask a favor of you, before you fly off and beyond from this city.”
In response, the simurgh lets out what Caster suspects is its own version of a sigh - a half snuffle, half-chirp that is just as strange as the rest of the creature. Pressing its cold nose into their outstretched hands, it gives a final sniff, then steps back.
“Thank you, we both appreciate it. I wouldn’t dare dream of taking any of the harnesses and tack here.”
There’s no questioning of how Rider understands the damn thing. Caster knows better than to ask, and what sounds like negotiations about terms of service slips away as the Heroic Spirit takes a better look at their surroundings. The stables have a single exit, and it is the furthest point from the three of them. Given that to enter the stables required subduing the guards stationed outside of it, and this entire farce has gone on for about seven minutes now, it was likely that the guards were either back in the realms of consciousness, or else some passer-by had noticed their passed out forms. Not good.
Caster frowns, and taps Rider’s shoulder gently.
“Ah, my friend’s right,” Rider says, still addressing the simurgh. In the few seconds that Caster had looked away, the divine beast had crouched down as to be on eye-level with Rider, making it look like a very large, friendly dog rather than the awe-inspiring thing that it truly is. “Time’s of the essence, and we best get moving before your former captors realize you’re gone. May I?”
The simurgh nods, and on cue, Rider walks over to the animal’s left side in order to mount it properly. It’s as easy as anything for him, and Caster can only watch and wait for a tiny little head to pop up over the simurgh’s shoulder.
“Come on then!” he yells down to Caster. “She’s not going to wait forever!”
She? does not come out of Caster’s mouth. Instead, he lets out a worried noise, close to a whine, and addresses the most obvious point in all of this. “Rider,” he says, watching his king trying to casually flag him over while perched atop a divine beast. “I have to get the door.”
Rider wrinkles his nose. “Right,” he says, his voice betraying the fact he found this to be very annoying. “We had to knock the guards out to sneak in, we can’t make a scene exiting on something that’s been locked up. I’ll pull you up once we’re outside.”
Caster strides through the central thoroughfare of the stable, ignoring the curious horses who poke their heads out of their stalls to watch the strange procession before them. A man dressed out of time and place, trailed by a young man perched atop a beast considered beyond rare. It’s a strange thing, and Caster knows that as soon as he opens the door, it will look far less strange and a lot more like theft.
The door doesn’t creak or make any kind of noise to herald the great escape. That doesn’t mean that the coast is clear though. It is the opposite, and Caster can only mutter the word shit as five guards are revealed to be on the opposite side of the door. They’re all European. They’re all armed. They’re all holding swords. They’re all looking from Caster to the simurgh, and trying to figure out what the hell to do.
“Let’s move!” Rider calls out.
The chain of events happens too fast. The simurgh starts to run, wings outstretched, paws thundering over the ground. One wing knocks a guard over, sending him flying onto the ground. There’s a crack, and then screaming about an arm. Caster’s own feet have him following the simurgh, and there’s a string of swearing in the creature’s wake. The other guards follow Caster, by virtue of him being the slowest and the one not in the air. Someone yells about letting the beast be. Their own clanking metal acts as an alert system, and it closes in too fast. The simurgh and Rider are in the air, and there is a sword to Caster’s neck.
One of the guards moves so that he is in front of Caster. The one with the sword is still behind him, and the other two flank Caster on either side. In the distance, the simurgh’s taken flight.
“Name,” the guard in front of Caster demands.
That part is easy. “Lord El-Melloi II,” he says simply, both hands raised in supplication. The simurgh’s gone...somewhere. Caster can only hear the wings. They’re coming around.
“Don’t kid around,” the guard says, his eyes only on Caster. “In the name of God and the city of Constantinople, give me your name.”
“Waver Velvet,” Caster says. “Birth name. Kingdom of England.”
“No such lordship there,” is the reply, the confidence all but dripping from the guard. “I’ll ask a third time, and hey, keep your hands lower where I can see--”
Caster grins as two hands grab his, pulling Caster off the ground entirely. Alexander’s probably showing off his riding skills and strength stat by hanging almost upside down off the simurgh, his legs wrapped around the beast’s neck, but whatever. It’s impressive, and Caster trusts Rider not to drop him as they climb higher and higher, leaving the guards below chasing after figures they could never hope to reach. There was no time for them to fetch arrows, not with the speed of the climb. Caster knew he was safe for now.
Kind of. A little breathless scream came from him a moment later as the two just barely missed smacking into a building.
“We need to land for two seconds!” Caster yells over the roar of the wind. “The distribution of weight is having an impact on the flight.”
“Got it!” Rider bellows back, before giving the simurgh a request. “The next flat roof you see, please!”
A low growl is the response, something Caster finds unsettling. It is unearthly, something that ripples with power that not even they can match, and yet for some reason, the thing is happy to listen to two servants that were using it as a glorified taxi service to explore Istanbul.
They land moments later, Caster flat on his butt since he was dangling, and Rider on his side, since he was hanging off from the simurgh’s neck. From below, the pungent smell of spices from further east smack Caster’s nostrils, making it clear they were atop the palace kitchens.
“Okay,” Alexander says, immediately rebounding to his feet. “Ready?”
Caster responds by holding up the single finger that is the universal sign of needing just a moment. He reaches into a coat pocket, pulling out a black hairband. It takes no time to put his hair into a ponytail. “Yes. I didn’t want all of this getting in anyone’s face.”
The smile on Rider’s face is big and delighted, and it stays on his face as he mounts the simurgh again. “I’ll braid it when we have a moment to do so,” he says, and the way he says it, it is clearly a promise. “C’mon, let’s see how long it takes to get out of the city.”
Rider extends a hand to help Caster up and onto the beast, and Caster takes it without a moment’s hesitation. The grip is the strangest part of seeing Iskandar in his youth so far. The callouses that he is so used to are there, thinner yes, but there, and the size of his hands is almost comically small in comparison to what Caster knows they will be.
“Better hold on,” Rider says, as the simurgh begins to run towards the edge of the rooftop.
Caster wraps his arms around Rider’s waist, holding on for dear life. A sharp gasp escapes him as the simurgh leaps off the building and for a split second, moves downwards. With two flaps of its wings, they are off again, climbing higher and higher.
Istanbul shrinks. It becomes a collection of church domes and minarets reaching into the sky, surrounded by a snug city wall. Smoke snakes skyward from the same city wall, each and every pile of ash a sign of the crusader attempt to retake the city. Fires come from the old palace too, and Caster can only pray that it’s Chaldea making them on purpose, and not Chaldea being attacked.
“It really grew, didn’t it?” Rider asks. His question is loud, but the inflection makes it clear that on the ground, he’d ask it in a softer voice.
“Yeah,” Caster agrees. It’s the kind of question that makes Caster wonder if Rider’s memory is at play, recalling memories from later on in his life, or if it is just remarking on a logical conclusion. After all, Istanbul existed before Rider conquered it. He’d know of it at his current age.
It is one of the hardest parts of having him back. Quietly, Caster lets out a sigh, readjusting his grip on the young King of Conquerors. Alexander had welcomed him as an advisor, but the recognition that Lord El-Melloi II hoped for, craved, it hadn’t been there when Alexander was summoned.
“Caster,” Rider says. “Do we have a better read on where they’re holding the rightful ruler of this city?”
“Roman says to get in touch with him when we were safely on our own. So,” Caster says, reaching into his pocket. “Let me do that now.”
The communicator is a loan, one of the ones reserved for missions exactly like this. “Actually, let’s land, so he can hear us clearly.”
“Got it! My friend!” Rider addresses the simurgh brightly. “Can you land us north of the city, please? Away from people if at all possible.”
The simurgh responds with an equally bright and delighted cawing noise, coming from deep in the pit of her stomach. With a single shift of her wings, Caster and Rider are turned northward, away from the city entirely and facing towards the Black Sea.
The landscape outside the city changes to large open plains, the kind best meant for those keeping sheep. Caster has no doubt in his mind that the population here serves the city and its ever increasing numbers their daily fill of meat and cheese, and he nearly says so out loud, when a bright flash catches his eye. Turning around, Caster’s gaze settles on the fully unfurled tail of the simurgh. The beautiful deep blues, purples, and indigos glitter in the sun, the light catching all the impossible subtle nuances. Spread out fully, it is impossible to understate how much the tail looks less like a tail and much more like the train of a royal entering court. It is the kind of thing Klimt dreamed of capturing on his canvases. It is beauty beyond beauty.
“Caster?” Rider asks eventually. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Caster replies, tearing his head away from observing the tail “Just distracted. How did you know that this creature would be friendly?”
Rider smiles. “I remember reading about them. They’re always female, and they’re always benevolent. Except maybe if she had gotten out and the crusaders were still around...anyway! That’s how I knew.”
Caster’s own smile is very thin, and it disappears as the simurgh begins to come in for a landing. The magnificent tail closes up behind them, and soon enough the sound of paws meeting ground fills the air.
It isn’t a very defensible position the simurgh had picked. Hell, it is downright foolish, being nothing but an open grass field. From what Caster had seen from the air though, there is no one around for miles, and that will have to be enough.
“Let me call back and see where we are in relation to Mehmed II,” Caster says, fishing into the right side pocket of his trousers. Rider nods, watching Caster dig out the little doodad. The second Caster sits down on the ground, there’s another, softer thud, coupled with a tug at his hair. “Hey, what are you...”
“I says I’d braid it, didn’t I?” Rider asks. “We’ll be flying again soon, and your hair strands were getting everywhere.”
“I...fine,” Caster says, crossing his legs as he tries to get into a more comfortable position. He feels the hair tie come undone, and makes a point of shaking his hair loose. “Just let me do the talking, okay?”
Fingers begin to comb through his hair, and Caster pauses for a moment to get used to the sensation before calling Chaldea. For a long moment, there’s nothing. And then, finally, someone picks up.
“Ah, Lord El-Melloi II! Good to hear from you!” The hologram of Dr. Roman is eating something that looked like the bottom half of a cupcake placed on top of the frosting, with the rest of the cake remaining underneath. “How’s Istanbul?”
“Fine. We’ve got a ride figured out, so I need whatever you have on Mehmed II’s location. We’re north of the city, although don’t ask me to give any sense of how far away we are.”
“You don’t need to, I can get that from the communication device itself,” Dr. Roman replies, putting the cupcake aside. “As for the sultan, hold on. I do know that it was supposed to be in the north so...” he trail off, eyes looking at screens Caster can’t see. Caster waits, staying still as he feels the sensation of hair being moved up and over, up and over, up and over by skilled hands. It is relaxing, really.
“Caster?” comes Dr. Roman’s voice after a few minutes. “I have a lock on the location, but you’ll have to do a little scouting on your own to figure out the exact numbers you’ll be facing. Sultan Mehmed II is being held about twenty kilometers northwest of where you are now, but there are crusaders protecting him. You’ll have to destroy them and anything they’ve got with them in order to recover Mehmed. Also, I’ve yet to hear from the other team, so if you you finish before they do, you’ll have to, er--”
“--Babysit him,” Caster finishes.
“Not the term I’d use, but yes,” Dr. Roman confirms. “He’ll be your charge until everyone else is done.”
Caster nods. “That’s fine. Also, since you can’t give me an estimation on numbers, I take it you can’t give me an estimation on weapons either, can you?”
“I’m afraid not. I did detect a beast in the area near you but--”
“Oh, that’s us!” Alexander’s head pokes out from behind Caster’s. He gestures behind the two of them, to just where the simurgh is sitting in the grass. “She was being held in the palace!”
“I...oh!” Dr. Roman blinks for a moment, and that same pleased smile that Caster dislikes is back on his face. “You befriended a simurgh, that’s wonderful! She’s the only reading that I’m getting then, you can continue onwards without any concerns in that department. Better for you to have to have the power of air on your side too, the crusaders have picked up some nasty dragons, but they’re without wings.”
“Hence the fires we saw from the air,” Caster sighs. “Thank you, Dr. Roman. We’ll let you know when we’ve completed our objective.”
The transmission ends with a crackle of static, leaving the three alone in the middle of nowhere in particular. Rider hums quietly as he finishes up the braid in Caster’s hair, and pats him on the back once he was finished.
“I’m ready to get going if you are.”
Caster nods. “We should do a very wide flyover first, I think, as not to draw attention to ourselves. I’d like to have an estimation of what we’re about to take on before we dive in.”
“Mmhmm,” Rider agrees. “We could fly further east and then north, and pass over on the western side on our way back here so it doesn’t look like we’re specifically coming for them. Will you be able to get anything useful from that?”
“If I can’t, then the Discerning Eye ability is for nothing,” Caster says. From anyone else’s mouth, it would be a boast. The way Caster intoned it, he simply sounded annoyed. “Let’s go.”
Rider doesn’t waste any time running over to the simurgh and politely asking her to head northwest, giving Caster a few moments to catch up. The beast waits for them both to settle on its back, seemingly happy to be of use again. It is the look in the eyes, Caster thinks. It is an almost human sort of gaze, one that seems to recognize the two need all the help they can get, and that the simurgh is offering her service out of the kindness of her heart, instead of just trying to repay the two.
Her paws tread quickly over the ground, gaining more and more speed and heralding their take off. In a moment, they are in the air again, moving eastward towards the side of the city that is actually in Asia. The thick braid that holds Caster’s hair in place is much easier to ride with, and Caster leans forward to catch Rider’s ear.
“Thank you, I appreciate not having my hair blowing everywhere.”
“Don’t mention it!”
For a while, the only sound between the two is the wind rushing past them. Having a conversation over all that noise is impossible anyway, but it also gives Caster time to sit with his own thoughts. Holding onto Rider offers only a flood of memories of all the variations the two had engaged in when it came to adventuring out together. Waver hanging onto the wheel for dear life. Waver seated in front of Rider while the two rode Bucephalus onwards to what should have been victory but was ultimately Rider’s death. In all of it, Rider had been the one looking after Waver. And in this moment it...
...it is in flux. Caster could be the support in terms of strategy that he never was during that damned Grail War. There’s no need to worry about providing Rider mana, and Caster has his own experiences with the Association coupled with the mind of one of the greatest strategists in history, giving him the ability to actually do something beyond stand on the sidelines. Hell, it is already obvious that Rider is willing to listen. They had agreed on how to approach this part of the mission not as Master and Servant, but as equal Heroic Spirits exchanging ideas.
But one moment isn’t enough to build an entire new form of a relationship on, not in the least when it is unclear what Rider’s memories are. Zhuge Liang would doubtlessly have an opinion on the matter too, but consulting him on something so personal is pointless. The few moments Waver had shared with Liang made it clear the man was inhuman. How was he to understand how nuanced the emotions of this matter were?
“We’re approaching,” Alexander eventually calls over the wind, snapping Caster out of his endless flow of thoughts. “I’m keeping us high, so this is your only chance! Ready?”
Below is a village, the green of it dotted by dark, burnt-out houses. They flash by quickly as the simurgh begins a slow, wide arc to try and provide enough time for Caster to look at the village without drawing attention. Caster can feel the curve, and focuses his sight on the village’s destruction.
The damage is recent as far as Caster can tell; most of the homes are still standing. There’s a five, ten percent loss at most. Useful data, but not the most important. He blinks, narrowing his Discerning Eye to the movement he can see on the ground. There’s a low protecting wall around the village, with guards posted at each of the four cardinal directions. Overkill for a tiny village that likely just housed sheep herders. More men walk in and out and around the place, crossing a central village area with a single well, and to the north there’s one building with more guards than strictly necessary.
“I’ve got what I can,” Caster declares. The simurgh’s curve continues, moving south, slow and steady and completely normal. She straightens out once the village is out of sight, picking up her pace as well.
It feels like less time passes en route to the same clearing, or at least that’s what Caster thinks. Regardless, once they’re on the ground, Caster stays put on the simurgh, prompting Rider to look over his shoulder.
“You’re ready to fight?” he asks, eyes slightly wide with surprise.
“So long as you agree to my plan.”
Rider nods. “What did you discern?”
“We’re looking at a crusader group that’s at least fifty but no larger than one hundred people strong. There’s a small house in the north that’s heavily guarded, that’ll be where Mehmed is being kept and where their forces will concentrate when we arrive and attack.”
“Makes sense. So we should land towards the northern entrance.”
“Yes. Now once we land, we face a problem. Even if we take the northern guards out without a sound and fail to draw attention to ourselves, we still have to contend with the house. I couldn’t see a back entrance, and if we go around the front, we’ll have to deal with an entire host of enemies along with any reinforcements they have. That’s two against many more, Heroic Spirit or not.”
“Hm,” Rider says thoughtfully. “So what if we land east or west and work our way through?”
“Won’t work,” Caster says. “We’ll have to fight whoever they come up with and then there’s time to fortify the house where Mehmed is, or else spirit him away to another location.”
“We can have our friend here track them.”
“Assuming they don’t have ways of covering their paths.”
“Assuming,” Rider agrees. “But if we go in all ablazing there’s--”
“--Yes, that’s a possibility,” Caster says. “But you’d need to break into the house before I deploy it.”
Rider’s smile turns smug, the kind of cock-sure grin that usually sets Caster’s teeth grinding when he sees it on a student. On Rider, in this situation, it is all the reassurance he needed. “I can do that.”
Caster nods. “Very well. If you’re ready, then so am I. My suggestion is that we land in the northern area and work from there.”
“You heard him, friend!” Rider declares, nudging the simurgh gently with his foot. “Actually, with her, what should we ask her to do-OH!”
The simurgh’s decision to not wait, to just get into take off mode, nearly sends Rider tumbling back, and it is Caster who braces him and helps keep him in place. Rider’s reaction to the whole thing is just to laugh, and he doesn’t push Caster off of him as they return to the skies. The decision suits Caster just fine, as he leans in to address the simurgh.
“Er...once we land, just circle about us and wait for us to wave you down, please?”
It is hard to tell if the sharp bark is an agreement or what, but it seems as if the simurgh understands the request. Caster’s own satisfaction shows in a thin smile on his face, and the rest of the flight, he simply holds onto Rider and prepares himself for what lies ahead. There is no sense of time as they make their way back to the village, and Caster quietly notes that there’s a majesty to this entire set up. Descending from a sky, hoping off the back of a divine beast, ready to kick ass, take names, and perform a rescue mission. It’s almost romantic.
The thought is dashed as they began to land. It is rough, the simurgh lacking all the room it requires to land properly and instead stopping short. Rider’s off her back before she even has all four paws on the ground, and it thrusts Caster forward, upper body flush against the simurgh’s back until all four of her paws are on the ground.
“Thanks,” Caster says as he rolls off the beast entirely. As if to make sure that all eyes and attention go to Caster, the simurgh lets out a loud cry, this time a near exact copy of a peacock’s call, before launching into the air.
Looking around, Caster takes a moment’s stock of his surroundings. There are two small houses to the north of him, one to the west, the east is wide open, and the south has three. Eastward actually leads to the well, suggesting that more reinforcements would likely come from that direction as well. As it is, there are a hoard of crusaders coming from that direction and from the south, all curious about the strange beast that has just landed in a secret location.
“What in God’s name was that?!” a few of them demand. It isn’t a cacophony of confusion, but it leads to the same conclusion: fingers pointing at Caster in an accusatory manner. “He arrived with it! He could be a witch!”
Caster grins, walking slowly towards the east. There’s a delay of a minute and nine seconds exactly before someone finally yells, “Stop!”
He does as instructed. Where he stands isn’t as close to the center of the village as he’d like, but it isn’t horrid. One man steps forward, his hair gray, his build stout, his face having seen a good number of battles over the years. The way the others around him seem to melt away makes it clear he is also an authority around here. Maybe not the person in charge, but close enough.
“Do you know where you stand, or are you passing through by accident, stranger?”
Caster’s eyes look around. He has maybe twenty people around him. Unacceptable. He has to draw more out.
“Yes,” he says finally. The answer is true for both. It is also true that this response is likely going to provoke a fight, something to avoid at all cost. Looking around him, Caster feels a smile creep up his face that has just too many teeth. There are houses that have curious faces pressed to the windows. That’ll do.
The sound of swords being unsheathed fills the air, and Caster can see that his eyeline is followed. They are going to move, based on their stances, and so Caster does the only thing he can: call on the first of Zhuge Liang’s abilities and force the rest of the men out of the houses.
He raises both of his arms, and with a word, flashes of green light fill the air. There’s a moment where the light flares, going from green to white as the strikes smack into two houses that sit opposite each other. Windows smash. Foundations rock. The crackle of fire fills the air, and from all of the other homes, men come running out, crossbows and swords at the ready. Someone lunges for Caster, and he dodges the blow only thanks to the speed gifted to him by Zhuge Liang’s status as a Heroic Spirit.
Caster looks around again. His Discerning Eye counts thirty men, and that’s more than enough. He crosses his arms over his chest, and there’s no time to exhale and prepare himself. There is mana, overwhelming amounts of him, coursing through every inch of Caster’s body. He is at the part where Zhuge Liang doesn’t quite take over, but his abilities and nature as a Heroic Spirit let Lord El-Melloi II channel all of the energy outward - a feat which he could never do under normal circumstances. If he tried at any other point to do this, he’d blow every single magic circuit he ever had, rendering him even more of a useless mage than he already is.
Caster throws his right arm outward, amid a low rumble of earth that causes the armed men around him to look around in wild panic. Someone yells out a terrified cry of “Witchcraft!” but it is drowned out by Caster unleashing the true name of Zhuge Liang’s Noble Phantasm. No one understands what he just said, and that’s just fine. The confusion is to his advantage, and the feeling multiplies when the pillars of the stone sentinel maze descend from the sky. They land around Caster in a wide circle, making him the center of the maze and forcing those around him to try and break through.
Beyond him, beyond the maze walls, Caster can hear the oncoming rush of other crusaders, come to see what the commotion is, come to see why the ground is shaking. Why it keeps shaking, and why the loud cries of their colleagues are slowly disappearing.
Caster keeps his eyes alert, looking everywhere in case any man manages to make it through the twists and turns that lead to certain death. There is no pride to display in defeating so many men so easily, and the part of Caster that is Zhuge Liang, present if not active in the moment, cheers when a single ragged knight breaks through the sole entrance to where Caster stands. He looks like hell already, with dents in his armor, one of his greeves missing, and sword broken down to the hilt. Not that the broken sword isn’t dangerous - there is jagged metal, making it still a dangerous weapon.
The Noble Phantasm hasn’t faded yet, and Caster keeps his eyes trained on the man.
“What,” the man breathes raggedly, trying to make himself stand upright. “Are you? What magician of the East--”
Caster’s grin is thin, the kind that shows he is thinking of a joke that only he is privy to. His stance shifts suddenly as the knight comes closer, and Caster breaks into a run.
“Find out,” he dares, going past the beleaguered man and into the maze. It is a cruel thing to do, forcing him back in, but between that or having to have a physical fight, it is the better option for Caster. There is terror in the man’s eyes as he sees Caster start to disappear into the deathtrap, and he has no further response beyond falling over.
Caster pauses at the entryway, eyes looking further into the maze. Every other person that was in there is now gone. This one man, passed out, is no threat. There is no point in doing him any further harm. He’ll be out cold for a long time.
Outside, there are a few more people. Two on horseback. That’s a problem, and the mana the maze demands is something that he can’t keep up. Heat begins to creep from the center of Caster’s body outwards. Fuck being a psuedo-servant.
“Shit,” he hisses to himself, just in time for a familiar voice to let out a loud bellow.
“I’ve got him!”
In a moment, the walls of the stone sentinel maze drop, revealing a wide circle of the few men who had come to investigate the maze after it appeared. In between them and the Heroic Spirit who stands at the center of the maze are corpses of those who had entered.
There is no moment of silence for the crusaders to absorb what they are seeing. The oncoming figure of Rider breaks through the ranks, his braid flying out behind him, his hand dragging Mehmed II along for the ride. The sultan is gaunter than he ought to be, with one eye swollen shut and a limp broadcasting that there is some kind of leg injury. He is moving along well though, the two far ahead of the crowd that Caster can hear thundering behind the two.
Rider darts past Caster in a second. “Call the simurgh!” he instructs.
“Would you wait for m--fuck it!” Caster groans, before letting out a sharp whistle in order to request the help of the simurgh yet again.
“Go west!” Caster says after the sharp whistle has sounded, and he takes a sudden turn, rather than continuing on straight with Rider and Mehmed. “This area is clear!”
There’s the sound of ground being trampled from behind Caster and in front of him. Two pairs of footsteps, and then something heavier. Just ahead is the simurgh, and the three put all their energy into getting to her. Rider hops onto her back without a second thought, and Caster remains on the ground, so that when Mehmed grabs Rider’s outstretched hand, the sultan can be pushed up and onto the simurgh’s back with little fuss. The process takes mere seconds.
“Caster, get a move on,” Rider says when Mehmed had settled. Caster looks over his shoulder, unsurprised that the crusaders have caught up to them.
“When we take off, fly low and knock them over,” Caster says, giving the simurgh’s side a gentle pat before getting back on its back. “Please.”
There is no way to tell if the simurgh has heard Caster or even would have the time to knock over the next wave of attackers. The red hot second that Caster’s rear is on her back, the simurgh takes off. Her runway is the same path the crusaders are using to get close, and her takeoff sends a number of them flying. For Caster, it is more than enough.
He looks back behind them as the simurgh and Rider keep their eyes ahead, and there is a great deal of panic below. Then there is something else, and Caster let out a single, precision use of the word fuck, following it up by shouting, “Incoming arrows! Northwest angle, I don’t know what their range is from where I am!”
Rider looks behind as well, a frown on his usually beaming face. He holds to the simurgh tightly as he does so. “We can’t ward off anything, we’re going to just have to make sure we’re out of range!”
The matter of range is answered moments later, as a dozen arrows rise along with the trio seated on the simurgh’s back. “They’re reloading!” Caster screams over the wind. “A higher angle will work until we can get out of raa-AAH!”
There is a shift, and Caster feels the sharp angle immediately. He begins to slide backwards, his hands starting to drag Mehmed with him. “Not that sharp, not that sharp!” Caster calls out, just as Mehmed demands, “Put yourself to rights!”
Rider’s grip on the simurgh is white knuckled, and he grunts as he keeps the other two attached to the flying beast. Slowly, the simurgh straightens out, but Rider’s grip remains the same.
“Caster! Anything?!” he demands.
There are arrows below them. Below them, and seeming to dive quickly whenever a new one joined their ranks. “All clear,” he says breathlessly. “We’re out of range. I’d recommend finding a place to land that’s on the other continent now. Word won’t be able to travel that fast, and by the time it does, the rest of the group should be done.”
“Mhmm,” Rider says. There is a moment’s silence then, but then comes a single question from Mehmed.
“May I ask who exactly are you people?”
Rider lets out a bright laugh. “I’ll explain once we’ve landed, Your Imperial Majesty! It’s not another kidnapping, I promise!”
“That remains to be seen.”
Caster can’t fault Mehmed II’s suspicions, not in the least. Going from one group of suspicious Europeans to another is hardly reassuring, and being carted around on a beast of legend does little to help either, or at least that is what Caster suspects is the sultan’s current thought process. But between that or being held hostage in a cramped village, well, at least one option makes life interesting.
The simurgh keeps them in the air for fifteen minutes more, the ride being a silent affair the entire way. When they do land, Rider hops off first, before offering a hand down to Mehmed and then to Caster. As Rider releases Caster’s hand, he leans in, doing his best to whisper.
“Should we let Dr. Roman know we got Mehmed?”
Caster nods in agreement. “I’ll take care of that. I’m sure that--”
No surprise that Rider is off to talk to other kings. Caster ignores the memory that begins to bubble up at the thought, and instead focuses on fishing the communicator out of his coat pocket. There’s some fiddling, some waiting, and finally, Chaldea answers.
“Ah, Caster!” Dr. Roman’s projection says, real warmth in his voice. “Where are you?”
“Asia Minor,” Caster replies. “We’ve got the sultan. Any word from the others?”
“Nothing good, I’m afraid. The actual siege has ended, but now it’s down to getting rid of the fighting in the streets, and it is unfortunately taking longer than expected.”
Caster’s eyebrows raise in faux concern. “Not enough ways to fight an army, I take it?”
Dr. Roman doesn’t show any sign of taking the dig for what it is. His tone remains perfectly pleasant. “Just some slight setbacks. It’s what...two o’clock local time? It’ll be over before sunset. Do you think you can entertain His Imperial Majesty until then?”
“Rider’s already doing it.”
“Okay. I’ll let you know when it’s safe for him to return to Istanbul! Please be careful in the meantime, and let me know if anything happens.”
There isn’t any time for Caster to reply, or deliver any type of wilting remark about well, anything at all. The transmission cuts out, and it leaves Caster alone and off to the side. He turns his head, unsurprised to see Mehmed and Rider sitting across from each other, the Heroic Spirit speaking loudly, all hand gestures and booming voice. Caster can see the delight on the sultan’s face as the man across from him speaks. It is in how his eyes are crinkled ever so slightly, how the ends of his beard are ever so slightly upturned. It is what Rider probably really wanted out of that meeting of kings back in the Fourth Holy Grail War.
Like that meeting, Caster knows he has no place to sit and participate in the discussion. He instead walks over to where the simurgh has settled, her belly resting on the ground and her head resting atop her front two paws. Caster sits down and leans against her side, trusting the simurgh to throw him across the clearing they now occupy if his presence is a problem. The simurgh makes no moves, and so Caster knows he is safe.
He folds his hands across his stomach, eyes focused on the two figures that were now oh, maybe fifty meters away. Caster can hear them now, with Rider talking about the palace he had grown up in. The question is about decoration and ornamentation, and slowly, Caster tunes out from the content. It is remarkable how the cadence of Rider’s voice remains the same, how the wide gestures are still there, and it seems that for all intents and purposes, the giant hunk of muscle that had been his Servant is still there, just shrunk down.
It isn’t the right way to think about him though. If Rider’s memories aren’t there, if he does not remember his full life, never mind any subsequent summons, then to compare him and his older self is wrong. It demands too much that might never be. Sure, the minute that Rider had entered Chaldea, Caster had invited him to play video games, but the kind of enthusiasm he got in response would be true even if Rider didn’t remember him. He just is that kind of person.
And he is still a king. That much is true now in his posture and how he carries himself. He has no pretense about being equal to the sultan, he knows he is. That, plus all the raw charisma seem to have truly charmed Mehmed. There is only one question Caster has in the end, but that is to be voiced when there is no one else to hear.
Minutes or hours could go by as Caster watches the two, letting their voices wash over him but not paying attention to their exact conversations. They don’t tire of each other, and it seems that if they are forced to camp out for the night, it won’t be a problem. But eventually the transmission comes through, and Caster picks it up.
“We’re still here,” he says by way of greeting Dr. Roman’s transmission. “How’s the city?”
“It’s all clear, Caster!” Dr. Roman says brightly. “Everyone else is waiting for you three at where they’re constructing Topkapı Palace. Overall, the city’s only taken a little damage.”
“Thank God,” Caster mutters. “See you when we’re back.”
Caster groans as he got to his feet. This is the real price of being a psuedo-servant: he can still feel all the pain and aches that went go the physical exertion of just being a Heroic Spirit. As he gets up, the groan catches Rider’s attention, and he yells to Caster.
“Are we good to go?”
“Yeah,” Caster calls back. “Crusaders are gone and everything.”
“Ah, that is wonderful news,” Mehmed says, also joining the yelling exchange. “How long will it take us to return to the city?”
Caster shrugs. Rider gives an actual answer. “Ten minutes? Fifteen?”
“We’ll get there when we get there,” Caster says. “Can we not have this conversation so damn far apart?!”
“Yes!” Rider shouts back. He gestures towards the simurgh, and that is where all three of them walk to in order to avoid any more pointless yelling.
Once there, Mehmed looks to Caster, leaving Rider to climb up onto the simurgh’s back first.
“I am told that I have you to thank for the stratagem that saved me from Crusader hands,” he says. His mood is far brighter than it was, leaving Caster to suspect that the conversation he was not privy to featured plenty of Rider’s raw charisma.
That thought remains in Caster’s head. His response is simple and straightforward, coupled with a curt nod of his head. “You were told correctly. I’m pleased that it unfolded as I expected it to.”
“I am as well. Thank you for your effort. You serve a very wise king.”
Caster can’t restrain the eyebrow that slowly goes up. Of all the topics the two could have covered that was not one he expected to come up. “Is that what you were discussing?”
Mehmed nodded. “Among many other things, yes. He declined to explain how it was you entered his service though, and I remain curious about that fact. Is it a matter of family or--?”
“Providence,” he says simply. It is the honest truth of it all, and before Mehmed can ask more questions, Rider’s voice cuts in.
“C’mon!” Rider says brightly. His hand is extended down, ready to haul up the simurgh’s other passengers. “Let’s get moving.”
The last of the simurgh rides passes by uneventfully. Caster’s eyes focus on the world below, watching the landscape morph into the city of Istanbul, watching the smoke rise from fires that are yet to be put out, watching history right itself thanks to Chaldea. Rider’s thoughts, Mehmed’s thoughts, they’re inconsequential as the simurgh speeds them all back. Slowly, surely, some of the city’s oldest landmarks begin to come into view. The Bosphorus. Hagia Sophia. And then finally...
“They’re there,” Rider calls out brightly as the simurgh begins to circle the under construction Topkapı Palace. The Chaldea group stands in one of the areas under construction, surrounded by massive slabs of marble lying on the ground. Mehmed’s hands move from Rider’s waist to shoulders, and is impossible to ignore the fact he is now sitting up much straighter than he was only a few moments ago.
The ground grows closer and closer as the simurgh prepares to land in the construction site. From where Caster sits, the rest of the team looks just as well as they were before the mission began. Mash is staring at the descending beast, one hand covering her eye from the glare of the sun, Gudako is talking animatedly to EMIYA, who seems as if he’d rather be anywhere, anywhere else. Arturia is having some kind of conversation with the younger form of Gilgamesh with neither looking particularly happy, and the streak of hot pink that is in the distance meant Medb has found, well, something that interests her. Eventually, the rest of the group who aren’t Mash notice the divine beast that is about to land. Only one of them looks impressed about the ride.
Small wonder it is Mash.
The landing itself is soft, barely felt. With all of her paws on the ground, the simurgh presses her belly downward, allowing the sultan and the two Heroic Spirits to slide off her back one final time. Mash makes a beeline for the three, mostly so she can guide Mehmed over to the rest of the group. For a single moment, she looks over her shoulder to Rider, Caster, and the simurgh.
“We’ve got this,” Rider mouths, dismissing whatever concerns Mash may or may not have had. Rider then turns back to the simurgh, letting everyone else head inside.
The simurgh sits quietly as the group leaves the construction area, then turns her head over towards where Caster and Rider stand. Rider smiles at the face that regards him with clear fondness, and offers his hand again, the same as when he had first met the thing.
“Thank you for staying with us as long as you did,” he says. “I know you didn’t have to.”
Caster feels two pairs of expectant eyes on him: Caster’s and the simurgh’s. He coughs, then offers his hand out as well. “And thanks for letting me lean on you when we were taking a break.”
In response, the simurgh lets out a soft whine, before placing her head down on the ground and nuzzling both Heroic Spirits. It is a ridiculous feeling, a giant cold nose trying to show affection, but it is there, and the delighted laugh Rider lets out is paired with a gruffer version of it from Caster. Rider beams and tries to pat the nose back in response, while Caster makes sure his hair is out of the line of fire.
“We enjoyed our time with you too!” Rider says, as the sign of affection comes to a stop and the simurgh finally pulls her head away. “Be safe wherever you go next!”
“And thanks again,” Caster adds.
Another snuffle issues from the simurgh, and she walks past the two servants with her head held high. The walk soon becomes a run, and then her feet leave the ground entirely. It is hard not to watch the departure with a dropped jaw: it is a sight to behold the departing divine beast, flying off into the setting sun. The copper flecks in her feathers are practically ablaze, and she looks for all the world like a star passing overhead.
Rider smiles. “You wanna go listen to the mission debriefing?”
“I was going to find a place to sit,” Caster says, eyes tracking the now impossibly tiny figure of the simurgh.
He knows there are uncertain eyes on him, and the feeling of a small hand taking his. There is a change to Rider’s voice when he speaks, all of the brightness of youth replaced with an older sort of concern.
“Yeah. C’mon, let’s do that.”
It isn’t being lead so much as just wandering together, through the maze of construction until the two find a courtyard that is nearly complete. It has a working fountain that gurgles pleasantly, the floor is a beautiful smooth stone, and there are steps covered by shaded alcoves that can be used for sitting. Three quarters of it is done, with a single wall missing. From there, looking right out, is Asia Minor.
Caster sits down, his seat offering an unobstructed view of Asia Minor. There is a loud crack from Caster’s knees as he lowers himself down onto the steps, and he hates the fact the sound prompts Rider’s concern to increase.
“Caster,” Rider asks quietly. “What’s wrong?”
“S’nothing,” Caster says, waving one hand off lightly. “It’s just been a long day, and I process this all differently.”
There is a moment of quiet, before Rider says, “It’s because you’re sharing your actual human body, right?”
Caster nods. “That’s right. If a life-threatening injury was dealt to me, my actual life would hang in the balance, unlike the other servants. Zhuge Liang would have to--”
“--So this is still the body that fought beside me in Fuyuki. Just older.”
Caster, no, Lord El-Melloi II, no, Waver goes quiet. His face pales, and the threat of fainting hovers for a moment. It takes an eternity to reply with the words, “Yes. That’s correct.”
A small hand rests atop Waver’s. The same familiar warmth is there, and every inch of Waver wants to throw himself around Rider and hold onto him. But the rest of Waver is still trying to process, and Rider’s next words only set the process back further.
“I’m sorry I didn’t let you know right away,” Rider says softly. “Part of me wanted to see where we’d stand now, before we built any notions that might work against us. The rest...”
Waver inclines his head, showing Rider that he was still listening. The young conqueror frowns at the ground as he continues. “I remember it all, but I don’t remember doing it. It’s like...like...reading an account that is familiar and you know to be true, but the experiences, the actual experiences aren’t there. And so I remember all of it, but the sensations, the acts of doing it, the sensory experiences that should be there aren’t.”
“It’s fine,” Waver says. It isn’t fine, but he understands the logic of the first part, and the second part chills him to his core. He is and isn’t remembered. He is there, but as a ghost, not a flesh and blood man who stood beside the great King of Conquerors. He is just a historical footnote.
There is a long silence. Waver can feel the little hand in his, squeezing gently, but for all the world it does nothing to help. Words stick in his throat every time he tries to open his mouth. Finally, he manages something.
“Then we need to define where we stand,” he says finally. “I’ve long given up any claim of being your Master, and for me to do so now would be to prey upon fuzzy memories. But in those same memories, before...” Before that fucking bridge. “I accepted you as my king. Do you continue to stand by that oath, or do I need to make it again, since circumstances have changed?”
There isn’t a verbal response. Rider withdraws his hand, and instead pulls Waver into a hug that should not be as strong as it is, given Rider’s age and build. His grip is strong and fierce and protective, and Waver can only hug back and bury his face in Rider’s shoulder. There is the threat of tears, to be certain, but there is also the joy of just closing his eyes and savoring every sensation of the moment. The familiar touch, the scent that Waver had woken up to time and again still lingering in the air, and the low rumble that he knows always preceded something either deeply profound or massively stupid.
But those words don’t come either. Silence settles over their reunion, and what more could Waver ask for in the moment?
Eternity goes by. Rider pulls away just far enough that he and Waver are eye to eye. “The minute I saw you and you said if I was ever bored, you’d play video games with me, I knew there was no need for such words.”
A laugh dies in Waver’s throat. “Idiot,” he says, unmistakable fondness in his voice.
“And let’s have none of these classes between us either. I’m Alexander as much as you are Waver.”
“Only to you,” Waver corrects. “I haven’t been that person in a very long time. If anyone else was to refer to me as anything but Caster, it’d be as Lord El-Melloi II.”
“Waver between the two of us then,” Alexander agrees. “Think they’ll notice we’re not with the rest of them?”
Waver shrugs. “They’ll figure it out before Roman recalls everyone. I’m happy to make them come find us.”