The wind howled around Ritsuka as the dark stores and inoperable lampposts flashed by him like grave markers of a dead civilization. The road was cracked and uneven with abandoned cars littering the path. The only visible light was that of the moon overhead and the single headlight on the motorcycle. The crash of metal and the bellow of a monster behind caused Ritsuka to turn to see through the limited view the visored helmet offered. Ritsuka could see… nothing except that something was there. A car was shredded to scrap metal by it’s trampling passage, as an aura of hatred pervaded it’s chosen path.
A sudden sharp jolt caused Ritsuka to lose his balance and tip forward. He desperately tightened his grip around the driver of the high powered motorcycle he was a passenger on. The result was a small but soft presence in his right hand.
“Where do you think you’re grabbing,” shouted Altoria as she turned to look Ritsuka in the eye.
“Oh, sorry, it wasn’t intentional,” cried Ritsuka back to be heard over the wind, engine, and destruction behind him. Altoria froze up for a second and demanded, “Why the hell are you here!?”
Altoria broke eye contact long enough to dodge past a ruined car on the road before turning her eyes back to demand an answer.
“Well, I’m not even sure where ‘here’ is, so I don’t quite know how to answer that. Umm, what’s that thing behind us? Somehow it feels like it desperately wants to kill me, and I’m starting to panic a bit.”
“Damn it, Ritsuka,” muttered Altoria, who returned to her driving duties, clicked her tongue in frustration and said, “That thing behind us is-”
“Yes-yes-yes, that’s far enough, young lady,” came the voice of a fluffy white haired man on an Italian moped, putt-putt-putting away right next to the speeding motorcycle. “I’d rather you stop there so that we can avoid any more spoilers.”
“Spoilers,” inquired Ritsuka in wonder. Altoria responded with more shouting.
“Damn it, Merlin, is this because of you!? And why shouldn’t I tell Ritsuka about that monster!?”
“No, you misunderstand, Artoria. I’m not stopping Spoilers for Ritsuka-kun, but for me. This seems really interesting and I’d rather not have any more of the experience ruined for me. Now, shall we find a nice place to stop at? I think we’re going to need to have a chat.”
“How are we supposed to do that while that monster is on our heels,” demanded Altoria. It seemed that she was being very confrontational with the white robed guy. She called him Merlin? Why did he seem so familiar?
“Oh, I’ve already cut off that part of the dream. That thing is gone already.”
Ritsuka looked back and sure enough, the presence that had made his teeth chatter was gone.
“Now, just take a left up here and we can find a nice restaurant.”
“Then I’ll just help myself, then,” said Merlin. A moment later the motorcycle slowed down and steered itself into a gentle left turn that ended with the three riders entering a sun soaked city street and parking in front of a cafe. Much to Altoria’s verbal chagrin. Merlin parked his Vespa scooter and energetically said, “Come now, children, let’s enjoy ourselves.”
Ritsuka loosened his hugging grip around Altoria and asked, “So… should we?”
“…There’s no choice. That guy will manipulate us into doing exactly what he wants if we don’t go along with him now. You have no choice but to pick your battles with that one. …And he seems to know why you’re here.”
“Where is here again?”
“Shut your mouth and get moving.”
“Now that I look at you, Altoria… what’s with the hoodie and shorts?”
“Hm? You have a problem with them?”
“No, they look great on you, I’m just wondering-”
“Sh-shut up and get inside already before I really lose my temper!”
Ritsuka had enough sense to know that when you step on a girl’s emotional landmine you do what they tell you to. Entering into the unremarkable storefront, what entered Ritsuka’s view was a cute cafe with lace doilies everywhere, chairs with cute curly designs, pastel shades of everything in light and cute colors, and overall just… an overload of cute. It was-
“A Maid Cafe,” asked Ritsuka in shock.
“Welcome, Goshujin-sama,” said Medusa in a maid uniform that showed a lot of leg with a deep rounded cut for the chest. She bowed and that open chest part grabbed Ritsuka’s attention. “Three Goshujin-sama for lunch?”
“Yes, thank you. A booth would be nice,” said Merlin irresponsibly.
“Please follow me,” said Medusa. Oh, she has a lovely shade to her eyes. Lavender like her hair, but a hint lighter in the color. Ritsuka became aware that Altoria was staring daggers at him, and started moving towards the booth Medusa led them to. In being directed to take a seat, Altoria nearly forced Ritsuka to take the inside seat next to the window and then sat down next to him on the side facing the rest of the store. Merlin, of course, sat opposite the two and haphazardly said, “Ooooh, this is nice. As I thought, you can’t visit this part of the city and not go to a Maid Cafe.”
“Speaking of, where is-”
“Spill it, Merlin, why is Ritsuka in my memories! It goes against everything I know about Master-Servant links!”
Ritsuka decided to delay his question once more since something seemingly more important jumped up in Altoria’s question. As it was once again something Ritsuka had never heard of. Instead he asked, “What’s this about Master and Servant memories?”
“Shall I explain to him,” asked Merlin. Altoria grumpily waved a hand to grant permission. “Servants do not dream. That is the first thing I must make you aware of, Ritsuka-kun. When Servants sleep, they see the memories of their past. Under normal circumstances, when a Master and a Servant are linked for a Holy Grail War they are able to see each other’s memories in their dreams. I believe you’ve already experienced this phenomena?”
“Yes,” said Ritsuka, searching his memory. “I had a dream where I was Cu Chulainn just the other night.”
“Ah, how sad,” uttered Merlin. “Having a man be your first time.”
Both Altoria and Ritsuka tensed a little at that cringe worthy joke.
“Ah, I’m afraid I must correct you, Goshujin-sama. Fujimaru-sama’s first shared memory was of the Shapeless Island in Fuyuki.”
“Medusa,” asked Ritsuka in surprise. “Is that the real you?”
“I’m… not sure, Fujimaru-sama,” said Medusa as she set cups of tea on the table in front of the party of three. “Somehow it feels like I’m here… but also like I’m not here. I also think… I am supposed to take your orders.”
“Omu-Rice,” said Ritsuka automatically despite half his brain being numb.
“What is that,” asked Altoria.
“Um, it’s a rice omelette. It’s some kind of rule that you’re supposed to order that when you visit a maid cafe for the first time, according to a guy in my class.”
“A type of fried food, then? Very well, I shall allow that to be served to me as well. Rider! I have given my order!”
“Well, far be it from me to be the odd man out,” joked Merlin. “I’ll have an Omu-Rice as well.”
“Thank you for your orders, Goshujin-sama,” said Medusa while giving another bow. Oh, there’s the low bustline again. The collar was so open it felt like the frilly shoulders would slip down.
Oh, Altoria’s staring at me. Time to look away.
“Even that child has entered this dream. How interesting,” muttered Merlin as he took a sip of tea. The man began his explanation again while setting the cup down. “So, once more, Servants don’t dream. And Masters can see Servant memories, and vice versa. However, tonight, Ritsuka, you entered into the Memory that Artoria was experiencing. Upon your arrival, the Memory shifted into a Dream that shared the same setting.”
“A shared dream,” asked Ritsuka.
“Did you have a hand in that, Pervert Mage,” demanded Altoria.
“Oh, no, not at all. It seems to be a side effect of the heavily modified Summoning process that Chaldea uses. Or perhaps it’s Ritsuka-kun’s nature as a Master? Or the result of being linked to nearly a dozen Servants,” said Merlin as he carelessly threw out hypotheticals. “But it’s so very interesting, don’t you think? Maybe I’ll try to cause one of these shared dreams in the future just to see what happens. After all, it’s quite amuse- I mean, worth studying.”
“Your true intentions leaked out, Lecher Mage,” said Altoria sourly.
“Anyway, Ritsuka-kun and my Liege are now in a dream together. Which appears to be completely safe… for you, Artoria.”
Altoria’s eyes narrowed as she demanded, “What does that mean?”
“It means that the more powerful consciousness of the Servant has pulled the weaker consciousness of the Master into it. It’s not unlike having one’s soul pulled from their body, but in this case it is the mind. If Ritsuka’s mental form, the projection of himself in this shared dream, were to take fatal damage… he himself would perish in reality from brain death. Which is why Ritsuka-kun was actually in extremely terrible danger back there in that high speed chase.”
‘Seriously,” asked Ritsuka in shock.
“This unreliable man is a master of dreams. If he says that is how it is, there can be no mistake,” said Altoria, her sour mood getting worse.
“You really saved me, then. There’s no way I was ready to face such a monster, “said Ritsuka to Merlin. Was it Ritsuka’s imagination, or did Altoria twitch slightly?
“Order up, three Omu-Rice.”
“Wait, was that Emiya’s voice,” asked Ritsuka aloud. A second later, Medusa appeared from the kitchen with a tray with steaming dishes on it. She set down a perfectly made Omu-Rice in front of each of the three diners and asked, “Did Fujmaru-sama want a personalized message from his maid? Is apparently what I’m supposed to ask…”
“Uh, yes please,” responded Ritsuka as more of a question than anything else. Medusa leaned forward, oh, the bust line again, and wrote the word ‘Fujimaru-sama’ on the large yellow omelette surface with a ketchup dispenser, and then surrounded it with a giant heart.
“Did Goshujin-sama also want a message,” asked Medusa to Altoria, who responded, “This king will accept your petition.”
Medusa wrote ‘Return Safely’ on Altoria’s Omu-Rice. And then turned to leave.
“Oh, what about my Omu-Rice, Medusa-chaaan,” asked Merlin, overly sweet. Medusa clicked her tongue, turned back, and wrote ‘DIE DIE DIE DIE’ on Merlin’s Omu-Rice. Then she asked Merlin, “Did Goshujin-sama wish for me to cast a spell to make your meal taste even better?”
Medusa stretched her hand towards Merlin’s food and said, “I who have feasted on blood and flesh call upon your power. Let the darkness of my hatred putrefy the lands, blight the people, and bring-”
“That’s good enough, Medusa,” said Ritsuka quickly once the ambient light started taking on a murky red haze.
“Yes, Fujimaru-sama. Now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Medusa bowed. Bustline again. Turned and left the diners at the table. Merlin had his hands steepled in seriousness as he muttered, “Perhaps I won’t be visiting Maid Cafes again, after all.”
Altoria began eating the Omu-Rice as Ritsuka asked, “So I can enter the dreams of Servants instead of just viewing memories. How does that happen and is there anything I can do to protect myself from that happening?”
“Hmm? Oh, no, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. I’m 100% sure of that.”
Ritsuka visibly deflated. Altoria continued eating her Omu-Rice single mindedly. Merlin went on to state, “As for how it happened… Desire.”
“Desire,” repeated Ritsuka. Altoria added more ketchup to her Omu-Rice.
“Yes. The two of you somehow lined up on the same emotional wavelength after the ritual you performed today. The connecting of souls in that ritual resulted in the two of you instantly becoming closer than ever, and perhaps… there was a lingering desire in the both of you to wish to continue that connection. I’m only guessing however.”
“Were you able to see what happened in that connection,” asked Ritsuka, worried about invasion of privacy considering the moments he saw in Altoria’s consciousness there. Altoria was still adding ketchup to her Omu-Rice. Maybe a little more forcefully than before.
“Oh, no, that was your souls touching each other. Nothing to do with dreams. Anyway, as far as I can see, you’ll only enter the Dreams of Servants when there is a very large desire to make that connection. It should be pretty rare. But try to keep in mind that it will probably happen occasionally, and take measures to keep yourself safe.”
“…How,” asked Ritsuka. Altoria was eating her meal again, seemingly having reached an Omu/Ketchup balance.
“How should I know? They’re your dreams. And on the subject of dreams, you know how I said Servants don’t dream?”
“Some of them do.”
“But you just-”
Merlin held up a hand to silence Ritsuka as he continued, “Some Servants dream on a regular basis. And those are the most dangerous of dreams for you to be pulled into. It’s a source of continued instability inside the Servant so great that it boils over from their mind, their soul, or even an outside force to twist the rules and laws that govern their existence. Even just stepping into a dream like that will put you at immense risk. And before you ask, no, I won’t be able to help you in those cases.”
“Why not,” asked Ritsuka with a drying throat.
“I was able to forcibly enter the dream tonight because I’ve entered Artoria’s dreams many times for the sake of training. It’s why I was so easily able to twist the dream and remove whatever it was that was chasing you- and no, I still don’t wanna know, because spoilers,” said Merlin sharply to Artoria. “Any other Servant, and the presence I can have in such places will be sharply reduced, and may even put me in peril to try and manifest inside. Which is to say, any dreams you enter into from here on out, you’re on your own.”
Ritsuka took a drink of the tea to wet his throat. With that pause in the conversation Merlin shuffled out from his seat and said, “Anyway, I should probably get out of here while I still have my head attached. You’d think that gal knew me from how much hate she’s been throwing my way. Bye, you two. Make sure you enjoy your youth while you can.”
Ritsuka’s eyes followed Merin’s departure until they got caught by Medusa’s form as she leaned over to wipe a table top clean. It seemed like the skirt was the perfect length to give the illusion that the sacred cloth underneath would show itself, but long enough that it would never appear. That fine moe balance of hopes and dreams that entrances men like a form of hypnotism.
“Do you like maids,” came Altoria’s displeased question.
Ritsuka went a shade white and stammered out, “W-well if you were to ask if I like or hate them…”
Ritsuka’s fake laughter seemed to annoy Altoria, so he pulled himself together and said, “In all seriousness… Appreciating Maids is a core part of Japanese culture, as though it were entwined in our DNA. To greater or lesser degrees, all Japanese men like maids. And any who claim they don’t… there is something wrong with them. Therefore, yes. I like maids.”
Ritsuka was waiting for the revulsion or rejection that might have been waiting for him at the end of his admission, but Altoria seemed to take it as the accumulation of knowledge. She then said, “Thank you for the meal,” while setting down her spoon on a clean plate and standing up from the booth.
“Hmm? You’re leaving already, Altoria?”
“Yes, Ritsuka. I need to relieve Mash for watch. I also intend to conspire with Jeanne D’Arc to not wake Mash again until morning so she can fully rest. She is still a new Servant, and I feel we should try and treat her as much like a human as possible in terms of her health until there is reason to do otherwise.”
“Yeah, it seems like Mash would push herself too far if we allow her to. But are you alright with staying up the rest of the night?”
“Ritsuka. Guarding our Master at all times is part of our primary purpose as Servants.”
“Haha. I see. Well, I guess I’ll leave it to you.”
The hoodie, tank top, and shorts wearing Altoria turned and left the shop, where she disappeared entirely. Probably waking up in the process. Ritsuka was left as being the only person left in the lucid dream, so he called out to Medusa to share the meal with him.
The Omu-Rice tasted great. Maybe because of the company. But that cold edge of unease about his future that Ritsuka had grown somewhat used to had become just a little sharper.
* * * * *
The two teens from Chaldea were snugly sleeping in their magecraft enhanced sleeping bags. The time to switch sentry duty with Mash had long passed and the two blonde girls sat on stumps that Altoria had prepared with her sword earlier while setting up the camp. The two girls sat there, sternly keeping an eye out for danger. They were both serious women at heart, and that showed in their attention to their duty.
Finally, Altoria asked, breaking the silence, “What do you know about maids?”
“Maids… is it,” asked Jeanne back. “Well, I can recall seeing the servants when I had audiences with Charles the 7th…”
“Would you mind telling me about them?”
“No, not at all.”
* * * * *
“Ah, Lady Medea! Would you mind taking a look at this,” said Osahar Moussa as he intercepted the woman in the hall before her late night shift in the control room started. He seemed tired and excited in equal measure, but the excitement won out, it seemed. If Medea wasn’t trying to be on the good side of the local riff-raff, she would have just ignored the man and continued on. Instead, she said affably, “Ara, what might you wish to show me?”
“Please take a look at this,” said the man. He seemed to have more sweat on his bald head than usual and slightly red eyes, like he’d forgotten to blink for long periods of time. And was probably over caffeinated. Medea took the proffered tablet while keeping as much of a distance as she could without seeming rude. With a polite smile on her face, Medea looked at the image to find-
“A ritual circle? And quite the odd one…”
“Yes,” said Osahar, his excitement trumping his civility. “Fujimaru used it to enhance Artoria Alter on site in France. I’ve been studying it since and it’s utterly fascinating. You see these parts here and-”
Medea took a smooth step back to avoid the outstretched arm of the dark skinned man so that her study would not be interrupted. Medea could see those parts quite clearly, and with more understanding than a mere modern mage ever could. The analysis of Artoria Alter’s specifications and their growth were displayed in the bottom right corner, and a video playback of the ritual itself was playing in the top right. The main image was a three dimensional recreation of the ritual circle itself. After expanding some parts of the image for a closer look, Medea knew everything she needed to.
“The ritual must have been taught to the boy,” muttered Medea out loud. “That’s the only logical reasoning. But who- Oh. Yes. Only that crude man would do something like this. It worked out well it seems, but why are you asking me to review your work?”
Medea’s voice went back up to a polite tone, but it was impersonal. Guarded. The slight shiver up Medea’s spine the logic behind the ritual caused prevented her from putting up her front of false intimacy. Osahar didn’t seem to notice, though, as he barrelled on ahead with his conclusions.
“Well, I already checked with Da Vinci, and there’s a spare summoning chamber that can be reworked into a chamber for this enhancement ritual! I was hoping you could help me with modifying the circle to be automated for the sake of enhancing the other Servants of Chaldea. If we can take some pressure off Fujimaru, while increasing everyone’s baseline abilities, then it’s a big win for everyone!”
“Partial automation of the process should be able to be performed with slight alterations here and here,” said Medea offhandedly while tapping the screen in a few spots, “But at the expense of a twenty percent increase in Magical Power required to perform the ritual. But that in itself is not the real problem here.”
“This ritual is incapable of being fully automated. A person is required for the sake of performing the process.”
“Well, then I can take care of that. Rituals are my specialty, after all,” said Osahar proudly.
“I recommend against that.”
“You’ll die,” said Medea flatly, as a cold fact. Osahar completely froze up. One large drop of the sweat on his head fell down the man’s face and onto his uniform. Medea sighed, knowing that the man in front of her was the type that would bother her if she did not perfectly explain the problem before him. So she took effort to cut the future annoyance off at its roots. Medea pointed to the script near the point the ritual conductor would be. “Do you see this part here?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said the man. Quiet and with manners now that he felt there was danger to his life.
“Those glyphs are from the age of the Gods. The meanings in them are so dense and precise that they cannot be tampered with, or the entire ritual will become dangerously unstable. They are also psychotically dangerous in terms of fail safes and security. Only the person the ritual is designated for can use it to perform the enhancement of a Servant under their contract. If anyone else performs the ritual, their soul will be consumed as a source of power for the Servant inside the ritual circle in place of the materials that would undoubtedly be piled up in the other points of the circle.”
Medea cut the man short and asked, “Are you aware that one of the potential sources of a Servant’s ability to continue existing in this world is the act of consuming the souls of humans and converting them into magical power?” Osahar shook his head no. “This ritual is one that will allow the designated Master to perform a strengthening process to their Servants, and for all others it is a ritual for Human Sacrifice. Just to make sure that anyone who has the hubris to think themselves equal to the ritual creator is horribly disposed of. It truly reeks of that golden narcissist’s personality. If you had shown this to me before my cute master attempted to use the ritual I would have firmly forbidden him from the attempt. Really, you humans are so lax.
“But as long as my Master is the only one who attempts to use the ritual, things should work out fine. You lot have already proven that by accident. I’ll make some notes on how to safely alter the circle and hand them over to you after my shift ends. You may want to rest a while, Mr. Moussa. You don’t look so well,” said Medea in a slightly mischievous tone. The man having had all his pride in his discipline stripped away in front of her eyes put Medea in something akin to a good mood.
Osahar nodded dumbly as Medea strolled past him. A few seconds after she did so, Osahar turned and called after her, “What exactly would have happened to me if I’d tried the ritual myself?”
Medea stopped, and turned. Only her smile could be seen through the hood the woman wore as she cheerfully said, “You would have been paralyzed and slowly melted into a puddle.”
As Osahar wavered on his feet and planted a hand on the wall for balance, Medea resumed walking to her part time job in the command center with a spring in her step. Tearing a man’s pride to shreds was even more satisfying than a cup of tea in the morning.