There was a swirl of power over the seals on Ritsuka’s hand, not unlike the billowing of a flag in the breeze but with a circle of runes instead of fabric. The lines of power formed into what Ritsuka could only assume was highly stylized words of dedication or defiance in French. One word looked like ‘Libre’ maybe? Ritsuka was verbally fluent in English but he still had to parse out the written language for mental translation, so written French was all Greek to him. Anyway, the dedication of the pact shone, then dwindled like the last twinkle of a star fading into daybreak. While Ritsuka was staring at the disappearance of the little lightshow, Jeanne asked, “Uh… How long do you need to continue holding my hand?”
“Oh, sorry. The Pact is done. I was distracted by how different it was from Cu Caster’s back in Fuyuki.”
Ritsuka let go of Jeanne’s hand with a sheepish grin. But Mash asked, “Different? I’m sorry, Senpai, but I don’t understand what you mean.”
“The little lightshow, kind of like a contractual link over my Command Seals? It was small, but flashy. You didn’t see it?”
“No, Senpai. I was watching, but I didn’t see anything like that. Either time.”
[Our visual feed didn’t pick up anything like that either. I’m going over it again… comparing with biometric readings… I can confirm the increased draw of mana and the solidifying of the temporary contract, but I don’t read any luminescence. I remember something about being a Master affecting someone’s eyes, could this be part of it?]
Altoria literally stepped into the conversation, walking up to the others in the group, saying, “When a Mage becomes a Master, they are blessed with insight in their vision where Servants are concerned. It can take more than one form, but generally it concerns being able to measure and categorize the strengths, classes, and abilities of Servants. Their own and Servants who oppose them. It can’t reveal any secrets or True Names, but it is invaluable to reading an enemy and forming strategies to fight them. Even so… this is the first I’ve heard of a Master having the ability to see a completed contract.”
“Oh, uh, is that so,” asked Ritsuka, scratching the back of his head unnaturally. He was trying to pass it off as being embarrassed, but Ritsuka was honestly a bit nervous. Despite the lectures Ritsuka had gotten from his father about keeping the Fujimaru bloodline trait a secret, Ritsuka had very nearly let the cat out of the bag. Thus, Ritsuka hurriedly changed the subject. “I guess there’s a first time for everything, then? Anyway, now that I’ve eaten something I feel full of energy. Shall I show you the ritual circle that Gilgamesh gave to me?”
“Of course, Senpai!”
[…Yes, please do.]
“Alright, Altoria, please stand in that central part over there. I just need to expand the dissolution chambers a bit to fit around the wyverns. And don’t step on any part of the chalk, alright?”
“Yeah, just give me a minute.”
[Osahar, make sure you’re looking at this, I want your impressions for the record.]
“Alright,” said Ritsuka as he moved to the far side of the ritual circle. There were up to five chambers for the dissolution, and the sixth point was where the mana was inserted into the process. Getting on one knee, Ritsuka called out, “Everyone else, stay at a safe distance,” and began pouring his mana into the circle.
“Senpai, how far is a safe distance?”
“Not… really sure, but you’re probably okay where you are.”
With everyone in their positions, Ritsuka started concentrating on the ritual circle. Pouring mana into the ritual felt an awful lot like when he did the Summoning process, but since there was no attempt to contact and recall something from another reality, it was less draining and consumed less power. The lines connecting the two dissolution chambers that were being used to connect the receiving chambers were filled rapidly and the pathways were secured. The sealing barriers went up next.
“Oi, Ritsuka,” uttered Altoria after the kekkai barriers were erected.
“It’s fine,” said Ritsuka distractedly. Next came the ignition.
Gilgamesh’s ritual was brilliant. It turned solid matter into mana that could be used to reinforce a Servant. And it did so with comparatively little mana cost to the one using it. But there were requirements in exchange for that ease of use. The first was precise recreation of the ritual circle. Any flaw and mana would begin leaking all over the place, leaving the transfer of the transmuted mana a complete failure. The second was that materials of high mana density were required for the act of transmutation. The reason being-
The bodies of the wyverns sparked like tin foil lining in a microwave, and a tiny portion ignited. That small portion burned, but no smoke was produced from the pale blue fire. The magical flame spread slowly at first, picking up speed until the entire body of the wyverns were consumed. The byproduct of this process was a thick pale blue miasma inside the dissolution chamber, with hints of gold reflecting through the mists.
The chain reaction was a success. Using the mana of the ritual practitioner to convert a part of the target into the catalyst to trigger the dissolution of matter into mana as a chain reaction. High mana density of the converted item was required for a process like this to be able to be attempted. But what better example of dense mana than the body of a dragon?
It took minutes for the dissolution of the dragons to be processed, but the load wasn’t too hard on Ritsuka. There was a surprisingly intelligent feature to the ritual, in that it cycled power through it instead of using a build up to power the process. Mana in rituals act much like fluid dynamics. Rituals that require built up mana need the practitioner to constantly be putting more mana into the ritual, to maintain the built up pressure and force mana to every part that required it. It was a simple and effective way to power rituals that had a climax to them, a sudden release of power.
The second type was exemplified by the ritual Ritsuka was performing. The mana cycling type of ritual required an initial outlay of mana to start it up, and then the practitioner would only need to act as a stopper and regulator. The ritual was built to move the mana around mostly on it’s own like how a washing machine cleans clothes with only an initial outlay of water. The added motion to the water is what allows the process of “washing” to be performed. In the same way, Ritsuka was the driving force of keeping the mana circulating with the use of his willpower. This type of ritual circle was possible only because there was no climactic end for the ritual.
“Dissolution complete,” said Ritsuka to himself. “Now for pressure control. Altoria, try not to be surprised.”
“I am always ready, Ritsuka.”
The barriers used to hold in the vaporized materials began to lift upwards, and visible lines of power following along the lines marked on the ground for the ritual circle came up with them. The lines followed a circulating route towards the barrier that enclosed Altoria. The chambers and pipelines of mana kept elevating until the pipelines were well above Altoria’s head. Though that wasn’t saying much…
Was it my imagination or did Altoria shoot me a dirty look when I thought that…?
Part of the barrier eased off and disappeared, allowing the mana mist to flow through the channels connecting the dissolution chambers to Altoria’s enclosed barrier. Once more, just like fluid dynamics, the mana infused mist flowed from the point of high pressure to the point of low pressure, with gravity to aid it’s path of travel. At this rate, Altoria would be fully subsumed by the mist. Possibly even drown in it, if the viscosity of the mana was too high. While it would be possible to reinforce the Spirit Core like that, it would amount only to a spiritual soak in a bathtub. A temporary refreshment to an unaltered core body. In other words, it would only be refreshing and not make Altoria stronger. Which was why Ritsuka had to manipulate the ritual in one more way. He had to cause the Spirit Core in Altoria’s body to draw in the mana so it could be reinforced from the inside out.
“Altoria, I’m going to need you to clear your mind and concentrate on your link with me.”
This is gonna be tough…
Gilgamesh had explained at the end of the dinner Ritsuka had shared with him that there were two ways to perform that final step in the process. One could finely control the ritual to exert an outside influence on the Servant’s Spirit Core to cause a temporary reduction in its power, allowing the mana to infuse it. Like creating a temporary hole and allowing the mana to fill it, only to fill the hole in and trap the mana inside.
That method was impossible for Ritsuka. It was the act of giving direction to a ritual. If Ritsuka tried to do that, the entire process would fail with potentially dangerous side effects.
The second method was to reduce the presence of the Servant inside the ritual, creating a temporary vortex within their own Spirit Core that draws the power of the mana infusement inside, and then allows it to bind to their core, leaving the reinforcement process fully completed before the Servant is returned to their original form. Like waking up after a surgery is complete, only being stronger upon awakening. This method didn’t require any manipulation of the ritual itself like the other option, however…
It was far more dangerous.
The outter most Command Spell on Ritsuka’s hand, the one he’d taken to calling “The Canyon,” flared up. Ritsuka concentrated his breathing the way his mother had taught him, and allowed his consciousness to disappear. On a primal level, Ritsuka was still aware of what was happening around him, the breeze and the sun and the swirl of mana infusion around Altoria. But his mind was in a different place, a different time, a different memory of when-
The green eyed girl shouted with a mixture of anguish, regret, anger, sadness, and longing. Trying desperately to reach something she never could and instead deciding to shatter it with her own hands as the blade of the sword came down, cutting through Altoria- no, Artoria’s body. The girl who could be Artoria’s sister fell lifeless to the ground, her ponytail soaking up the fresh blood her body and Artoria’s body had released on the death defiled hill they stood on. Artoria wavered, and fell.
The world faded away as someone rushed to their ruler’s side, shouting the name of the king of Camelot.
The ritual was proceeding well. The swirl of the mists had quickened like water circling a drain. By drawing Altoria’s consciousness into himself, Ritsuka had successfully created a vacuum, a void, for the mana to occupy. Now it was a matter of how long Ritsuka could keep it-
An underground chamber covered in the putrid hues of the end of the world. Altoria stood there, looking down on the intruders that she intended to fight. Even though she knew that doing so would accomplish nothing, her pride was too great for her to change her mind or to question her path. Even though she knew that if she won, her path would end in ruination. Even though she knew that if she lost, she would face ruination.
Altoria would not change her ways. And instead threw herself into the role of the villain. The one that must be surmounted, the one that acted as the trial. She stood to gain nothing, and knew that she would only sacrifice everything by doing so. Altoria unhesitatingly chose to fight a pointless battle once again.
Her flesh was burned.
Her body was pierced.
Her limbs were crushed and torn.
Her body was destroyed.
Laying on the ground, covered in her own blood after having travelled the blood soaked path she’d determined for herself… a single boy reached out to her. He apologized to her. He was sorry for her end result. And somehow… it felt like the path she took had meaning, if only for that one moment.
Before she disappeared.
The mana infusion had started in earnest. The dissolution chambers were emptied out so Ritsuka allowed the sluice gates to close again and allowed the used up chambers to drop from his attention. All of Ritsuka’s focus for the ritual now fell on Altoria alone, the mist being drawn into her body itse-
It looked like a tunnel, but Ritsuka couldn’t be sure. Everything crackled and fritzed like a VHS tape that had been hit with a magnet. The sound was corrupt, only a third of everything made sense. Altoria was in combat, Ritsuka was certain. It was combat at such a high speed inside that cramped pathway, with Altoria fighting a figure that Ritsuka was eventually able to place as being Medusa, but without her mask. And there was a third figure present, a teenager with red hair? His face was so distorted by the corrupted memories that Ritsuka could make out no features other than that.
The sparks of combat flashed in the darkness. The slowly gained advantage of Altoria over Medusa became more and more pronounced until the lavender haired Rider was nearly pressed into a corner with the red haired boy looking on in agony of his own inability to get involved. When the pivotal moment arrived, the clashing of Noble Phantasms.
Somehow, the boy was able to interfere at that point. The corruption of the memory flickered and buzzed, so Ritsuka couldn’t be sure how, but Medusa’s Noble Phantasm won out but had drained Medusa of all strength. Altoria was wounded but not finished, laying on the floor as the boy straddled her.
Altoria said her final words of peace and of congratulation, before the boy wordlessly stabbed into her heart.
Ritsuka’s teeth were grit in frustration and concentration. The ritual was nearly complete. Ritsuka could release it at any time, ending the infusion early if he deemed it necessary. But there was still a mass of power inside the chamber that Altoria was absorbing. Her head bowed and her eyes closed. Ritsuka was not about to leave this hard earned power to disappear when it could be used to make Altoria stronger.
Allowing his eyes to flick down, Ritsuka swore he could see the connecting line between Ritsuka’s and Altoria’s consciousness. Glowing red with the power of the Command Seal. Ritsuka’s eyes flicked up again to see-
Altoria’s face right before his own in a world of white nothingness. There was nothing between the two of them, around the two of them, separating the two of them. But Altoria didn’t seem to be seeing Rituska directly in front of her. In a tone of indifference, of total acceptance. Altoria spoke.
“My path will forever be one of blood. Others… and my own. As the Tyrant, I will lead the way. As the Tyrant, I will cut the path. As the Tyrant, I will annihilate my enemies. And once my purpose is served, as the Tyrant, I will be killed. No matter my intentions, no matter my reasons, no matter my actions. That is my role. To be the sacrifice for other people’s happiness. That is why he… why Ritsuka shouldn’t speak so lightly. My path is predestined. So flippantly saying he can change it, is insulting!”
“I will change it,” shouted Ritsuka as he grabbed Altoria’s shoulders. At that moment, Altoria’s amazed eyes focused on Ritsuka as though he’d appeared like a flash before her. “Your path is bound to mine, Altoria. That is why, no matter how difficult, no matter how hard, no matter how painful… I won’t allow it to end in tragedy! You are not a sacrifice! You are my friend.”
“I… cannot accept that! As a Tyrant, I can’t have a friend. That would be like betraying my existence.”
Altoria looked down, breaking eye contact, a defensive measure to retain her will while resigning herself to her role, the facet of the King Arthur legend she was patterned after. But Ritsuka wasn’t gonna have any of that. Ritsuka gently lifted Altoria’s chin to force her to look into his eyes again as he said, “Then be my partner.”
Altoria’s pale cheeks gained a blush of red as she released a soft sound of surprise.
“As your partner, I will pull you off your path and onto mine. I refuse to have a tragic ending. I refuse to be a sacrifice. I refuse to leave you alone. You will accompany me to the end. Anytime I’m about to step off the right path, then pull me back, just as I will do for you. And to that end, Altoria. I will say it in place of everyone who never had the chance. Thank you.”
“What,” asked Altoria, her eyes going round from shock.
“The role you took on yourself… has been thankless. Intentionally making yourself into a mid boss or final boss like character. Constantly forcing yourself to chase the hardest path. And doing all of this without letting anyone else know your troubles. I know you didn’t do any of it to be thanked. Even if I’m not someone who benefited from your efforts. I’m thanking you anyway. Thank you, Altoria. Because of all your effort, your sacrifice… I was able to meet you. And we can be partners.”
Altoria lifted her hands up, and put them against Ritsuka’s chest to push him away in rejection, saying, “That’s!” The force of Altoria’s hands lessened in that last moment, the rejection disappearing, and the hands rested against Ritsuka’s body. “That’s,” said Altoria again, all protest slowly disappearing from her voice. Altoria’s outspread fingers slowly curled, gripping lightly onto the fabric of Ritsuka’s uniform that Ritsuka was garbed in even in this limbo reality. Altoria’s head inclined slightly forward, as her balance tipped forward itself. Ritsuka braced himself for a possible hug-
The last of the blue and gold tinted mist was absorbed by Altoria’s body, and the ritual circle automatically deactivated, forcefully separating Altoria’s consciousness from Ritsuka’s and returning it to her body. The cut off was jarring and without warning, definitely a safety measure of the ritual to prevent a permanent intermingling of minds. Ritsuka didn’t feel anything wrong, injured, or painful, so he was probably fine but-
“So exhausted,” said Ritsuka in Japanese. The ritual was less draining than a Summoning, but it had required a lot more focus over a longer period of time.
“What was that, Dr. Roman,” asked Ritsuka.
[That’s what Osahar is calling it, a Servant Ascension. Artoria Alter’s readings are all leveled up from where they were before the ritual. Congratulations, all of you. It seems the ritual was a Great Success.]
“Congratulations, Senpai! Altoria!”
“Yes, I also offer my congratulations to the both of you,” said Mash and Jeanne one after another, with Fou chiming in as well. Altoria didn’t correct Mash about her name this time and was silently gazing at Ritsuka.
Ritsuka slowly stood up again and asked, “How is it, Altoria. How are you feeling?”
Ritsuka’s question was open ended on purpose. He didn’t know how much of his interaction with Altoria in that limbo state she’d remember, so he played it safe. Altoria turned around, manifested her black holy sword, and took several practice swings. Her power flowed into the sword as she swept, chopped, and thrust, causing the dark aura of cutting power to expand around it. Altoria’s mana moved more swiftly, more cleanly, and seemed to have expanded in quantity as well as quality.
Releasing the cutting aura around her sword, Altoria turned back to Ritsuka, thrust the blade tip into the earth, rest her hands on the pommel and said, “Better.”