Ritsuka and Shiki were enjoying their illusionary drinks at the dining table of the endless aquarium’s refreshment area as falling sakura petals danced around them. The sweetness and light tang of the orange smoothie was refreshing even this deep inside Ritsuka’s subconscious mind.
“That really hits the spot,” said Ritsuka to his partner, his date, inside the depths of his mind while she enjoyed a cup of tea. They’d just finished a tour of a phantasmal aquarium, where the fish and sea mammals were not separated or segregated by any rhyme or reason, allowing them to see the creatures of the world at their leisure. They’d just finished watching otters playing with seals in the previous “exhibit” before taking a break.
“What was this drink called again,” asked Ritsuka.
“Oh, that’s an Orange Julius. It originates from America,” replied Shiki, happy to see her company enjoying himself.
“Julius,” asked Ritsuka a little dubiously. “Caesar doesn’t have a hand in it, does he?”
“No, I’m relatively certain he does not,” replied Shiki with a giggle.
“Thank goodness. The last thing we need is for that fake Santa to bounce in trying to sell this aquarium to us.”
Both of the teenagers laughed out loud at the thought. After their laughter settled, Shiki had a small hesitant start as she said, “I’ve had a wonderful time with you tonight, Ritsuka. Which is why I wanted to save this for after we enjoyed ourselves, without anything hanging over our time together.”
“Shiki… is something wrong,” asked Ritsuka, his eyes becoming warily compassionate as he lightly leaned in closer to Shiki. His was the face of a man who’s willing to take on the trials meant for others to endure. There was no hint of wariness of Shiki herself in those eyes, which she found… endearing.
“In a way… but do you recall when I told you that we could only meet in your dreams, barring nearly impossible circumstances?”
“While I’m in this place, yes. I’m sorry to say but when I’m awake, I can’t recall anything about you.”
Ritsuka spoke apologetically, but Shiki just shook her head, her chin length brown hair swaying lightly. “That’s as it should be, Ritsuka. You don’t need to worry about that. But… those impossible circumstances… have come about. So, I wanted to have this last chance of spending time with you in our own little world… before the impossible happens.”
“I…see? But, Shiki, what’s this impossibility? Will you be alright?”
“Ritsuka, you really should worry more about yourself in these matters, I’ll be fine,” said Shiki in a light admonishment. Ritsuka gave a very out of character ‘Tee Hee -pero’ while lightly knocking his own head and sticking out his tongue. Shiki fought against laughing, which would break the somber mood she’d set up. “But yes. I’ll be fine. …I look forward to being under your care. I’ll be seeing you soon.”
And with an enigmatic smile, the illusionary world around Ritsuka and Shiki began to dissolve as he was pulled from his dreams.
* * * * *
The alarm clock like chiming of the comm watch woke Ritsuka from what he could only consider a good dream, even though he couldn’t remember what it was about, and he was summoned to the Command Room. Ritsuka gave himself enough time to wash his face, get fully dressed while in the washroom, and then bend under his bed to say, “Time to wake up, Kiyohime. Seems like there’s something going on.”
“Fuah!? Oh? Ritsuka-sama…? Is it time for us to consummate,” came the sleepy voice from beneath Ritsuka’s bed.
“Ah, no, Kiyo. I’m going to the Command Room. There’s probably some sort of mission, so I thought you’d want to come.”
Kiyohime’s head popped out from under the bed and the covers, her dragon horns coming perilously close to stabbing Ritsuka in the face. That was one of the reasons Ritsuka backed off so fast, the second being the unreasonably excited look in Kiyohime’s eyes as she asked, “You wish for me to accompany you!?”
“Uh, yeah. You don’t have to, but I’d rather you not have any misunderstanding that I left my room for something that isn’t work related.”
“Ahhh, for Ritsuka-sama to worry for my sake! How wonderful! Shall I draw up the marriage certificates?”
“That and this are completely different! Anyway, I’m leaving now, you can come with me if you want.”
“Oh yes, yes please,” called out Kiyohime’s dainty sing-song voice as Ritsuka walked over to the door to his room. Opening it, there stood Artoria who had guard duty for the night. She did not have her sword manifested, but that did not mean her guard was diminished. On the contrary, her armor was adorned and her attention was unwaveringly focused. She lightly turned her head to look at Ritsuka as the door to his chamber opened, causing her golden ahoge to sway gently
“Ah, Master? Is something the matter? Hmm? Kiyohime!?”
“There’s really no need to be surprised that she got into my room at this point, is there, Artoria?”
“I wish I could dispute that comment… Anyway, is there something I can help you with, Master?”
“Maybe. I’ve been called to the Command Room. Could you come with me? We might need to deploy immediately.”
“As you wish, Master. This one is always ready for combat!”
“No, it’s not decided that we’re going to be fighting anything yet…”
The trio then began their leisurely trek to the Command Room, with Kiyohime happily fiddling with her smartphone while humming. Halfway to the Command Room, they ran into Mash and she joined the group. The quiet halls resounded with their footsteps.
“I know it’s about midnight, but… don’t you think Chaldea is quieter than usual?”
The installation had been regaining its energy and busyness with the large number of Servants that had been summoned so far. Since sleep was optional for Servants, it was normal for them to be hanging about with their hobbies or pastimes. With such a large gathering of disalike heroes, conversation and impromptu interactions across epochs and legends were common in Chaldea at all times. However, now, the halls were oddly silent.
“Now that you mention it, Chaldea does feel kind of empty,” remarked Mash. Ritsuka himself was slightly disappointed in that he didn’t have the opportunity to recruit more members of a potential mission team before getting a briefing. But the rest of the journey was quiet, except for the sound of Kiyohime’s smartphone as she took a selfie for some reason. As the door to the Command Room opened, Dr. Roman turned around from his work station and said, “Ah, both of you have arrived. That saves me from having to explain twice.”
“One should not complain about performing the job they undertook, Acting Director,” admonished Artoria loud enough for the other people in the Control Room to hear.
Dr. Roman smiled bitterly and said, “I guess you have me there. Anyway, please look at this monitor. Around Japan on the world map.”
“Japan,” asked Ritsuka as Artoria’s focus on the matter at hand grew. “I thought we already took care of Fuyuki.”
“We did,” replied Dr. Roman. “It’s not Fuyuki itself, but an area right next to it. Sylvia, zoom in there? Good. Now, you can see this strange distortion, right? We’ve been keeping it under observation for the past few days. We thought it might be an error or a space-time fluctuation caused by the self-repairing Singularity F. But it’s presence didn’t diminish or disappear even after an appropriate amount of time had passed. And then, when we change the filters for the information; Celeste, if you would?”
The information on the monitor fuzzed, then reformed, depicting an intact urban scene with heat signatures moving around it. Three of the four members of the impromptu group gasped. The fourth one, Kiyohime, was silently glomped onto Ritsuka’s back from behind.
“There are signs of life,” cried Mash aloud. “But these coordinates should have been incinerated!”
“That’s not the only strange part of this scene. We can detect these life forms, but there are countless moving objects present. Sheba also can’t get a read on the scale or era of these coordinates. Aside from these images, it’s a complete black box. Self-contained and utterly inscrutable. We won’t know what’s going on unless we Rayshift there to investigate.”
“Dr. Roman, the size of this distortion… is it a micro-Sigularity like Castle Csejte? Or is it something different?”
Dr. Roman solemnly shook his head to Ritsuka’s question and gave a non-answer. “I’m sorry, but we don’t have enough data to even classify it. And Elizabeth’s Castle, like the person, is an anomaly amongst anomalies, so I doubt it’ll be exactly like that. As for what it is, I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you.”
“But that doesn’t change the fact that we have to fix it,” remarked Ritsuka.
“Except we’re unsure that it’s something that can be fixed. What little we know suggests that it may be a place that is ‘outside of time.’ Not unlike ourselves,” said Da Vinci as she made her usual dynamic entrance.
“Could it be a second Chaldea,” asked Artoria.
“Definitely not,” said Da Vinci, speaking over Dr. Roman who asked, “I thought I was giving the briefing here.”
Da Vinci continued on, ignoring Dr. Roman.
“If human history is a tapestry, Chaldea are a few stray threads that survived it’s destruction in the Incineration of Humanity. This thing, however, is like a hole in the tapestry, that leads to a pit trap. I don’t know how it came to be, but it’s been luring the Servants in and trapping them in there.”
“Trapping Servants? Our Servants,” asked Ritsuka, his hackles going up hearing his friends were being targeted by an unknown danger. He knew Chaldea had been quiet recently, but he’d never dreamed it was because of something like this.
“We traced the Rayshift Logs for the Servants over the last few days, and have noticed that starting from the day the anomaly appeared, a large number of Servants have gone there and not come back,” observed Dr. Roman, taking his opportunity to be relevant again.
“They never came back,” asked Mash to clarify. “None of them were incarnated again from the Summoning Circle? Which would mean that none of them were defeated. So they’re simply… remaining there?”
“Exactly,” said Da Vinci. “I’ve already confirmed that their contracts with Ritsuka are still in effect. They have not been nullified or hijacked. Which means the Heroic Spirits who Rayshifted to that strange hole are either staying there of their own free will, or-”
“Or they’re trapped and unable to return,” said Ritsuka, completing the thought while Kiyohime’s even sleeper’s breathing sounded from Ritsuka’s back.
“And so, that’s everything,” said Dr. Roman as he crossed his arms and nodded to himself. “This distortion has nothing to do with restoring the Foundation of Humanity. It won’t cause any harm if we just left it alone. But if we leave it alone, the Servants who entered that place most likely won’t return. That is why I’m asking if you, Ritsuka and Mash, are willing to investigate. Will you do it?”
“There’s no way in hell I’m abandoning my friends,” said Ritsuka adamantly. “I can Rayshift right away.”
Everyone in the Control Room smiled, relieved. It was reassuring that their only Master was someone who could be counted on in such times. Dr. Roman said, “Then we’ll prepare the Coffins for Rayshift right away. Now, because of the nature of this anomaly we won’t be able to send you any backup, and we don’t know what might be awaiting you there. Please confirm the team you’ll be taking with you before you depart.”
“My team, huh,” muttered Ritsuka as he went into some deep thinking. Artoria stood to the side on standby, Mash looked at Ritsuka with total faith, and it felt like Kiyohime was drooling a bit on his back while sleep standing. As usual the team selection was all on Ritsuka. But it was a solid team. Mash’s defenses were amongst the best Ritsuka could even imagine, let alone having seen. Artoria was a solid all rounder who could be counted on to adapt to her battles, even though she was a hot head who tended to charge into battle. And Kiyohime was actually one of the more controllable Berserkers, and was actually less of a battle maniac than Artoria. If there was a weakness with the team, it would be that.
“We’re going to need some ranged attack and support to round out the team,” muttered Ritsuka. Mash was full defensive, Artoria could explode the horizon but had no accurate ranged attack, and Kiyohime would just light everything on fire. And it felt like having someone on hand that could deal with magecraft would likely be a requirement, so a solid Archer and Caster would be ideal, but without knowing who was and was not still in Chaldea limited the options that Ritsuka could-
“MATTE MATTE MATTE kudaSAI,” came the belligerent bellowing of Tamamo’s voice as she dashed through the open door of the Command Room. The dark pink haired and shrine maiden blue garbed fox wife stopped short of tackling Ritsuka and she propped her hands on her knees to catch her breath. Her hair was undone where she usually sported a blue ribbon that created twintails from her majestically long hair. In all aspects, she looked a little frazzled. Even her long pointy fox ears were drooping.
“Are you alright,” asked Ritsuka, to which Tamamo replied in what was for her energetically bouncy voice a deep growl, “Where is that Kiyohime…?”
Having been woken up by the shouting, Kiyohime leaned out a little from behind Ritsuka and asked, “Hmm? Tamamo? What’s all the noise about?”
Tamamo froze in mid pant, like a predator who’d resolved herself to lunge at her hated enemy, and grabbed an object out of the obi sash around her rather fashionable and revealing clothes. She pushed the object out in front of her, and began pointing at it while shouting, “You send me a text message like this and you ask me that question!?!”
It was indeed a smartphone, one of the Chaldea standard manufactured ones that Da Vinci made and disseminated to the Servants for her own twisted goals. On it was a message saying An-chin and I are eloping. My condolences to the elderly fox widow. And the selfie of herself with me on our way to the Control Room.
“Do you have any idea how it felt to be woken up by this kind of garbage,” shouted Tamamo with a vein pulsing on her forehead from her barely endured rage.
“Ah, Ritsuka-sama, this old woman is scaring me,” complained Kiyohime in an intentionally cute manner and then hid her face behind Ritsuka again. This seemed to tip the balance of control that Tamamo had maintained causing the blood vessels in her eyes to bulge horrifically. Before she could do anything, Ritsuka stepped forward, put his hands on Tamamo’s shoulders, and said, “I’m glad you’re here, Tamamo. You’re exactly who we need on the team for this very important mission. Will you come with us?”
“Ah, good idea, Master,” remarked Artoria from the side. Mash also chimed in with, “An excellent choice, Senpai!”
Caught completely off guard, Tamamo asked, “Me?”
“Yes. We need someone who can attack at range and provide healing and support. And I can’t think of anyone better suited to the role than our precious shrine maiden fox. We’re dispatching right away. Are you free to join us,” asked Ritsuka, fully earnest.
Tamamo’s face started creeping into a smile before she gasped, pulled away from Ritsuka, turned around, manifested and tied a ribbon about her hair, manifested a mirror to check her face, made some corrections – was that a thingie of mascara she was using? – straightened up, whirled around and said in her usual bubbly and bouncy voice, “You can count on your shrine maiden fox wife, Danna-sama! I’ll blast all your enemies away with a MIKON! You’ll be perfectly safe with me at your side!”
With Tamamo taking a pose with her fingers forming the shape of fox heads, she proclaimed her acceptance into the mission team.
Artoria said, “How reassuring.”
Mash said, “I’m glad you’ll be with us, Tamamo.”
Ritsuka said, “Thank you, Tamamo. I’m sorry it was such short notice.”
Kiyohime said, “Mu. Some extra baggage is tagging along on our honeymoon.”
It took a bit of time to calm everyone down enough to climb into the coffins. One coffin for each member of the party had been prepared. As the protective shields closed around Ritsuka the world went dark. He was dropped into a state of isolation where no one could tell if he was alive or dead from the outside. The humm of energy ramping up met his ears, and the darkness melted away along with all reality. His eyes and body ceased to exist in only three dimensions as his consciousness was met with golden motes and surges of blue power.
The mission had begun.