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Thread: Future’s End

  1. #1
    Hey, I ain’t no lizard! Draconic's Avatar
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    Post Future’s End | Prologue… Record 00: The Girl Who Wept in the Dark

    Author’s Note: I wrote this for a contest a few years ago hoping that I might finish it sooner rather than later and submit a more complete version for another contest by not claiming it afterwards. No new contests arose however, and I wouldn’t have found the direction I needed in time anyway. It’s still not nearly done and won’t be finished any time in the near future. However, I think it’s time for me to claim this story. It may be very late but I greatly appreciate the detailed critiques from IRUN, Alf and Dark Pulse. Thank you for that. I hope that if anything has changed that it has done so positively. It’s been a fairly long time since I looked at that initial draft.

    For those who have seen this before, the first chapter will be up soon, but for consistency’s sake, I’ll just post the prologue for now.

    Anyway, without further interruption, I proudly present this old, new fanfic.





    * * * * * * * * * *

    Prologue…

    Record 00: The Girl Who Wept in the Dark

    * * * * * * * * * *

    The Moonlight Room. It used to be a break room, but now…

    Well… it was storage, once. Now it wasn’t anything. Just one of the few places left that those things hadn’t found. It would have been fine of course, except that the room was so far away from everything. She was only here because she had been trapped. She needed to get back to the others. It was her only chance, but… everything that would allow her to get back to the floor above was completely blocked off, whether because of a simple obstacle or because one of them was in the way.

    But she knew one thing: She wasn’t going to die. Not yet. She wasn’t ready, she could still fight. And whether she could make a difference or not, she swore she would bring hell to the stragglers left behind by the man who took everything away from her. No, the monster that took everything away from everyone.

    Then again… It’s not like she could do anything anyway. Not like she had anywhere to go. She or any of the others. They were trapped here, forever. There was no escape from this place. Its name alone made her sick. It had been a source of hope for her. Another symbol that she could look at to know that her family’s legacy persisted. But that wasn’t true anymore. Nothing persisted. It was over, and she had lost. Now all that remained of that name were broken dreams, and a door that led nowhere.

    She remembered the day that shadow showed up in their midst and summoned the first of those horrors to rip the entire facility to pieces, killing everyone they encountered. Or worse…

    Maybe the reason she heard it was because of the silence. There wasn’t any noise anymore, not unless she or one of the others were the source. Something about it carried a kind of horror. The silence was eternal, and if something broke it and you couldn’t see it, your life was guaranteed to end before you blinked.

    It was a sound like… a hiss… or the kind of sound that she would have expected a flash of light to make, if light had a sound. She knew she should go investigate, but she… she was too… it was just…

    She slid to her knees, furious with herself for allowing herself to be this weak. For not toughening up even after the world literally ended because she was such a useless, pathetic, hideous, obscene failure!

    But she wasn’t strong. She was useless. She was pathetic. She was hideous. And most of all, she was, without question, the greatest failure to have ever lived.

    She curled over onto her side and cried into her arms, pretending just for a moment that she would move her arms away and the lights would be on. That if she looked out the window, she would see a snowstorm instead of that horrid colorless expanse. That if she opened these doors, she wouldn’t turn the corner and see a hole that went clear through the floor. That the girl she never appreciated enough hadn’t been reduced to a flattened gory stain on the floor by falling debris. That the man she idolized hadn't tried to kill her, and that the boy she'd been so cruel to hadn’t managed to push her away and get taken in her place. She wished that she could have kept more than seven other people alive.

    But that wasn’t true. It wasn’t just them. Everyone was dead. Everyone was dead… and it was all her fault. So she did the only goddamn thing she seemed to be good for:

    She cried.


    She cried, and wished for a miracle.


    And deep in the darkness, a monster wondered how much she would sacrifice for one. It couldn’t help but grin at the prospect.

    It was time to play.




    Future’s End




    The abyss cannot stare back, for even its darkness cannot escape.
    Last edited by Draconic; July 3rd, 2019 at 09:25 AM.

  2. #2
    Presia messe noce yor tes mea TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    I was looking over the stuff from the last Fanfic contest just like two days ago, and I remember thinking "huh, too bad no more of this ended up materializing. Oh well, that's the fate of contest entries I guess."

    It's been a while, but I'm glad to see you haven't (entirely) given up on it. Looking forward to seeing more!
    My Fanfiction - Almost entirely short stories and oneshots

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    Hey, I ain’t no lizard! Draconic's Avatar
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    Post Record 01: Knock Knock

    Mashu closed the door. The Moonlight Room was empty, lost in its own corner of the facility. She had just dropped off some files that needed to be put into storage. She had never believed in the ghost stories about the room, but she couldn’t deny that it exuded an almost tangible sense of loneliness. Maybe it was because of the dim lighting outside the doors, or maybe it was just because it was so isolated. It didn’t help that the chairs that were still inside the room were so cozy. She had fallen asleep in one of them one time and all she remembered now was that she had some very unsettling dreams. Whatever the case, she was glad to be headed back to the more populated area.


    Record 01: Knock Knock


    Chaldea’s halls were quiet. There had been no singularities pressing enough to require intervention lately. It was why Mashu had been available to do something as mundane as filing in the first place. It had been… peaceful seemed like the right word. She smiled as she strode toward the elevators on the way to the command booth where she was going to meet up with Da Vinci, who wanted to test one of her new command modules: in this case, it was the new director of operations’ chair.

    It was true; Gordolf was at least accepted, but it wasn't quite the same as having proper Chaldea staff in charge, and there was the fact that there was no reason for him to sit there when he still wasn't completely aware of what they did here. Nevertheless, it would still be useful to have. And from the way Da Vinci had been bragging, it was both so simple that an idiot (see: Gordolf) could use it, and had higher functions that could be learned simply by practicing.

    She opened the door to find Ritsuka and the Servant chief of staff already discussing the new equipment.

    “—that it will be difficult to understand, but just in case, I also made sure to leave the final model equipped with a built-in tutorial mode,” she turned as she heard the doors slide open, “Ah, Mashu, you’re just in time!”

    She hurried over to the Demi-Servant, and took her by the shoulders.

    “Come along, yes,” she led her over to the chair—more of a throne, really—and gestured for her to sit down. “Have a seat. If you don’t mind, I’d like to see how long it takes for a person of average intellect to take to the controls.”

    Mashu did as instructed, rolling her eyes at the unintended jab at her intelligence. She looked at the array of buttons and touchpads running along the length of the throne's arms. They were comfortably arranged at least.

    “What would you like me to do?” she asked.

    “Just to confirm, you’ve never been in command of the facility before?”

    “No,” Mashu blushed, “of course not. I’m not nearly—“

    Da Vinci waved her hand to quiet her. She turned to look at the giant viewport that gave the entire room an unobstructed view of CHALDEAS.

    “Good. Now, Mashu, I want you to bring up the singularity tracking statistics on the overhead screen. I will not be telling you how to find it, mind you. I’ll need you to do this on your own.”

    A shiver ran up Mashu’s spine. Wasn't this dangerous? If this chair really had control over the whole facility, pressing buttons at random would be…

    Except she suddenly realized it wouldn’t be random. As her hand glided over the touchpad on the right arm, she saw several options light up on the hologram.

    Rayshift Paramaters
    Traveler Observation
    Transchronological Communication
    Access CCTV Feeds
    Singularity Tracking
    Security System
    Structure Controls
    CHALDEAS Direct Interface
    Settings

    There were several other options below, but for now, Mashu just followed instructions. She played with the cursor floating in midair for a moment, watching as the options expand and shrink in size as the pointer drifted over and past them, before she noticed that there were a set of arrow keys on the left arm. She placed her fingers on them and pressed the ‘down’ key. The cursor vanished and the Rayshift option grew slightly. She tapped down three more times, leaving Singularity Tracking selected.

    “This is not yet the completed model, unfortunately. I'm afraid I lied earlier. Not intentionally, I was expecting to have completed it by now, but… something odd… came up. If it presents itself, I'll take over and see if I can work through the glitch.”

    Mashu nodded. She was curious for a moment, but Da Vinci's complete lack of concern dulled her interest. There was a button that looked (and felt) rather like an Enter key and she tapped it, opening up a series of other menus. Behind the screen, the sparkling blue globe continued to rotate.

    “Access the Sheba Lense,” said Da Vinci. Mashu nodded and sought out its icon. She clicked.

    After a few moments of code running along the screen, the words SITUATION NORMAL flowed across the great viewport, while also displaying a fairly standard no-danger report from what she had seen of it before.

    “Very good,” the chief of staff said, sounding very pleased with her new invention. A bit self-gratifying, perhaps, but she was a genius. They all had quirks. “Let’s move right along. Head back and open up ‘manual control of CHALDEAS.’

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    “Do I look like a ‘ma’am’ to you? Really?” Da Vinci rolled her eyes, but her tone was frivolous and only mock-offended. Mashu hit a key that she assumed–correctly–was the 'back' button twice, and then selected CHALDEAS Direct Interface.

    The great blue mystic code stopped turning, and three cylindrical knobs rose out of slots in the arms and angled themselves in several different directions to correspond with the rings around the globe.

    “Go ahead,” Da Vinci gave her permission before she had a chance to ask.

    She twisted one of the knobs and the outermost ring began to spin in time with her turn.

    “Whoa…” Ritsuka breathed. “Now that is cool.”

    Mashu had to agree. She went to work spinning the rings around the globe before manipulating the central sphere itself. She knew it was a priceless magical artifact, but who knew CHALDEAS could be so much fun! She decided to examine Antarctica just for the sake of familiarity and turned the globe to view the South Pole.

    Then something buzzed, and the entire room turned red as an emergency light began to flash. Alarms started blaring throughout the complex.

    “Emergency! Extinction imminent! Immediate action required! Emergency! Extinction imminent! Immediate action required!”

    DO NOT PANIC! THIS IS THE ERROR I WAS SPEAKING OF EARLIER! WE ARE IN NO DANGER!” Da Vinci shouted as half of the employees in the room completely lost their composure. She drummed the mechanical fingers of her prosthetic impatiently against her staff, remembered what she wanted to do, and then grabbed the intercom.

    “Attention all staff!” she spoke firmly and forcefully, “The system is currently in error due to a prototype machine I am attempting to implement! There is no danger at this time! For the love of all that is holy, do not lose your heads!”

    Mashu, who had jumped out of the chair and started begging Da Vinci to forgive her for breaking her machine found herself ignored as the chief of staff pushed past her and sat down at the command module.

    Without any hesitation, the Da Vinci jabbed ferociously at several buttons, suddenly opening up a holographic keyboard, into which she began typing feverishly. She hit ‘Enter.’

    All she got was an error message. Before anyone knew what was happening, all the lights but the flashing red emergency lights went out. Alarms still roared, deafening all who could hear them to everything else.

    She continued typing, writing a full line of new code every second.

    “Dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit!” she snarled. “Why won't you just stop?!

    Every time she tested a new workaround, she just received another error.

    “What is this?! Nothing is happening!” she ground her teeth together as she started a new line of code. “The world is fine, you useless—“

    The alarms suddenly stopped and the lights turned back on. The entire facility breathed a collective sigh of relief after the near-disaster that had just taken place.

    Turning on the intercom again, Da Vinci took a deep breath and then made her announcement. It wasn't flattering to her, but there had to be accountability here. She couldn’t avoid taking responsibility for her impatience.

    “Attention all staff. I must apologize for the… incident… that just took place. The doomsday announcement must have been incredibly frightening. I assure you, the world is fine. I’m afraid that I am solely to blame for this incident. There is no need to worry. It was just a bug in the code that I failed to catch. I apologize for both the fright and the inconvenience.”

    She hung up.

    “Blasted piece of—” she seethed.

    “I take it that was the ‘odd’ thing you mentioned?” asked Mashu.

    Da Vinci didn't say anything, but she nodded. After a few moments though, she cracked.

    “I’m sorry. It’s just… I don’t understand what’s causing it,” she whispered. “It makes no sense whatsoever. I’ve programmed that message to go out in case of a severe disaster. CHALDEAS is monitoring things everywhere, so why would my new invention of all things cause it to think that humanity is about to go extinct?”

    A beeping noise caught her attention and she looked up at the screen to see a single singularity flickering into existence. For a moment it looked like it was somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, but it was hard to tell. Even when she zoomed in and attempted to lock onto it, it seemed to actively evade the system.

    Ritsuka cleared his throat, catching Da Vinci's attention.

    “Should I assemble a team for this?”

    “I’ll try to resolve it with a hands-off approach first. If that doesn’t work, then… on second thought, sure. Better to be safe than sorry.”

    The Master nodded and hurried off.

    Da Vinci continued trying to lock onto the singularity, but it was somehow slipping through all of the programs meant to keep them connected.

    “What’s wrong?” Mashu asked.

    “It’s ignoring all the usual functions. None of them seem to work.”

    Mashu didn't quite understand, but figured that she still had a better idea of what was going on than she did moments earlier. A few moments later, Ristuka hurried back in followed by Siegfried, Altera, Hassan of the Cursed Arm, Atalanta, and Lancelot's Berserker incarnation.

    “What is the situa—”

    That was as far as Siegfried got before he, and the rest of Chaldea’s present staff were met with a sight that they couldn't even make sense of.

    CHALDEAS had stopped turning. That would have been normal had Da Vinci locked onto the anomaly, but for one thing: it was flickering. It was flipping back and forth between blue and orange uncontrollably.

    Whispers of “What?” “Do you know what's going on?” “Why is it flickering like that?” and various other expressions of uncertainty came from everywhere in the room as the staff murmured to one another, hoping that one of their colleagues could find something to make sense of the anomaly.

    Then emergency lights began flashing again. Da Vinci narrowed her eyes.

    “I see,” she muttered. Without waiting for anyone to ask, she made an announcement, turning on the intercom and shouting over the blaring alarms. “All staff, listen up! For those of you not present in the command booth, I can’t be certain, but I strongly suspect that a newly discovered anomaly may be the cause of these errors I’ve been receiving and the reason for the alarms going off. I’ll require everyone’s cooperation in this task, as I feel certain that the Extinction alarm is going to go off every time I lock onto it.

    “I’m afraid that you’ll all need to allow for several more of these alarms going off. Master Fujimaru will be going to assess the situation, but it is my firm expectation that every time we attempt to contact him, or rather lock on to the anomaly with CHALDEAS, we will trigger the Extinction event alert. I apologize in advance for any interruptions this might cause, but this anomaly must be dealt with. If it’s playing this much havoc with our systems, it’s unlikely to be benign, so as long as it continues doing that, it is going to be treated as a threat level singularity.

    “I want all staff members at their stations. Anyone who needs to rest must have their replacement on hand. This includes going to the restroom and sleeping. Anyone who was not on duty as of a moment ago is now on the clock, and you should all be bringing rations up from storage for your colleagues. You can eat at your stations. No consoles or control modules are to be left unattended for so much a second! No exceptions!”

    She turned off the intercom and took a long, deep breath, and let it out slowly.

    “Master Fujimaru,” she turned to Ritsuka, asserting as much professionalism as she could with her tone. “I’m going to need you and these servants to rayshift immediately. Mashu, you’re up as well.”

    “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” the Shielder took a spot at her Master’s side.

    “Before anyone says anything else, I’d like to recommend we move quickly, if no one has any objections,” Atalanta interjected.

    Da Vinci looked like she had something else to say, but all she could do was nod. It could wait. This was a serious situation, not to mention people wouldn’t be able to calm down while the emergency sirens were lights were still ringing.

    Ritsuka gestured for the Servants to follow him and Mashu as they headed for the elevator to the rayshift chamber. They didn’t wait for the doors to open all the way before filing in and hitting the down button.

    The elevator felt like it was crawling down to the bottom floor with the alarms and red lights going berserk as they were. Atalanta took a moment to massage her ears, and Ritsuka realized how insensitive the rest of the group must have seemed to her. If the sirens were agitatingly loud for them, how much worse must it be for her with her more sensitive ears? Unfortunately, he must have been staring, because she rolled her eyes and muttered “I’ll be fine, don’t make a fuss.”

    “Such a strange state of affairs,” Hassan murmured to himself.

    Altera made as though to reply, but realized the intention of the Assassin’s words just before she spoke up. Closing her mouth, she waited silently as the elevator continued its long descent. She summoned the Sword of Mars, letting the tip of the blade rest at her feet. Her grip on the hilt tightened. Mashu, without actually thinking about it did the same thing with Ritsuka’s hand. He gave her a reassuring squeeze. At least, he hoped it was reassuring.

    As Siegfried stood in silence, the workings of his mind a mystery to all those present, Berserker was snarling uncontrollably. It was just as impossible to tell why he was so worked up, unfortunately, as it was to determine what Siegfried was thinking. Lancelot’s Berserker form was always angry, and rarely spoke in coherent sentences.

    Ritsuka looked out the window. There was still a ways to go before they would arrive at their destination. He found that he really wanted to get off this elevator if only to escape the tension. What was it about this singularity that was making everyone so anxious? Aside from bugging out Da Vinci’s technology, it was still just another singularity. They’d handled plenty of these already. This wouldn’t be any different from the last one, or the ones that would come after, or—

    “I don’t like this, Master,” Atalanta said, and Ritsuka found himself back where he’d started. “There’s something off about all of this.”

    “Any idea what it might be?” Ritsuka asked hopefully.

    She gave him a pensive look, but after a few moments…

    “I’m sorry. I can’t tell at all. Perhaps it’s just a sensory overload, but I expect that’s merely wishful thinking,” she spoke calmly, but she was fiercely serious. “I’ve worked in much less accommodating environments than this. That I’m agitated now of all times does not make any sense to me.”

    “You don’t have to apologize, Atalanta,” said Ritsuka.

    “Everyone looks tense about something. You’re probably just empathizing,” Mashu suggested.

    Atalanta smiled ruefully.

    “Wishful thinking.”

    “You say ‘something’ as though you don’t know what it is. Have you forgotten?” Altera asked, sounding concerned, or maybe worried for them if anything.

    How far were they from the bottom? They were passing a support beam so he couldn’t see. Ritsuka could only hope that they could get off this elevator and start doing something about this problem before its mere concept started doing things to them.

    “Any guesses on what we’ll find in there, Senpai?”

    He found he didn’t want to answer. He didn’t know what he was going to say, but he opened his mouth—

    “Blind speculation will serve no purpose but to further the progression of your own anxiety,” Siegfried stated calmly. “Stay focused on the task at hand.”

    As though his words were the one stable rock on the proverbial sea of emotions, the tension in the elevator seemed to die down for a moment. Then the car finally came to a stop. The doors open and the anxiety was back with a vengeance. This singularity was messing with them far too much considering that they hadn’t even gotten inside.

    The only thing they could really do to ease the stress was to rayshift into the anomaly as soon as they possibly could though, so Ritsuka and Mashu both hurried to their respective coffins and waited anxiously for the unsummon program to start. The Servants just watched and waited as they always did.

    The first of the two familiar electronic voices began speaking, indicating that they were on their way out.

    "Central bulkhead, now sealed."

    Berserker and Altera, the only Servants Risuka could see from his position, visibly tensed.

    "Commencing interior cleansing in ninety seconds.

    Seeking qualified Masters. Single instance confirmed.”

    A few moments later, the second voice began to play over the P.A., signalling the initialization of the rayshift.

    “Reestablishing contact with brZEEEEP! KZZT…SSSHHH!”

    It was only the first of several signs that something was already going wrong. Ritsuka covered his ears as the electrical feedback screeched over the speakers. He couldn’t imagine what Atalanta must have been going through with her far more sensitive ears.

    “Starting unsummon program,” the system continued smoothly.

    "Beginning spiritron conversion.

    Rayshift beginning in three… two… one.”

    Ritsuka took a deep breath and…



    Nothing happened…

    “Huh?”

    Before he had time to arrive at any sort of conclusion, the final message played, as though nothing had been amiss.

    “All procedures clear. Abstract Order, commencing operation.”

    Something glowed at the periphery of his vision and he prepared for the jump. When he didn’t see the usual flash and the ensuing vortex of spiritrons however, he started to grow concerned again. Altera’s startled expression didn’t help, nor did Berserker’s anxious snarling. Now outright worried, he pressed his face up against the window at the front of the metal cylinder to try and get a look at what was happening in the unsummon hall.

    What he saw, he couldn’t make sense of. He’d never seen anything like it.

    Something was spreading outward from CHALDEAS. The center of the room had taken on a bizarre appearance, like fractured glass, or a hall of mirrors at a carnival. Each shard held a spectrum of different colors, and each time the phenomenon spread, it seemed to alter the dimensions of the room, as though the shards were two-dimensional objects that were somehow enveloping the three-dimensional world. Ritsuka was growing more confused by the second.

    Was this the rayshift in slow motion? Were Chaldea’s systems running slowly, maybe?

    A speaker crackled to life above them, and all of a sudden Da Vinci was screaming.

    “Wait! Fujimaru! Mashu! Get out of the coffins! Everyone evacuate the room! Now! NOW!

    Unfortunately, it was far too late for that. The doors were sealed, and she was miserably aware of that.

    The bizarre prismatic effect continued to spread around the room in small, but instantaneous and erratic bursts, until it enveloped the entire hall.

    “Fujimaru!”

    That was the last thing Ritsuka heard before a blinding phantasmagoria of colors consumed his vision, and he was gone.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Ritsuka, Mashu and their small team of Servants opened their eyes, the light from the rayshift fading away and leaving them in an empty hallway.

    It was a very familiar hallway.

    “Did something go wrong during the rayshift?” Mashu asked. Off to the side, some of the Servants started looking around, demonstrating what felt like undue caution. For some reason, Berserker was snarling, emitting his usual aura of black mana.

    “I didn’t feel anything off about it, but…” Ritsuka trailed off.

    There was no question about it: They were back in Chaldea. This was one of the residential corridors that had been used to house Servants.

    The young Master spied a two-way intercom on the wall and headed over to it.

    “I’m going to go ahead and contact Da Vinci,” he said, pressing the Call button as Mashu nodded her approval. The speaker beeped in response and he cleared his throat. “Hi, it’s Ritsuka. Uh, Da Vinci, I think that the rayshift might have malfunctioned? Or at least did something wrong. It’s just dumped us back into one of the hallways. Can you check the rayshift chamber before we head back there? Or do you know what happened?”

    A few of the more curious Servants stopped moving around as they waited for the imminent response. Except that it never came. Almost a minute passed without anyone answering. Ritsuka looked at Mashu, who could only shrug her shoulders, unable to provide him with an answer. He pushed the intercom button again.

    “Da Vinci, this is Fujimaru. Did you hear my previous message?”

    Again, there was no response.

    “There are no nameplates on these doors. Odd,” noted Hassan, in his usual tone—that is to say, showing a modicum of interest while not sounding particularly concerned.

    Not feeling particularly interested in waiting, Atalanta strode around the nearest corner only to stop in her tracks, her ears shooting up in alarm, her gently swishing tail abruptly going stiff.

    “Excuse me, Master, but I think you should look at this.”

    “In a sec, let me just—”

    “Da Vinci is never going to respond!” Atalanta’s voice was different. He’d never heard her speak with such dread. “And there was nothing wrong with the rayshift. I give you my personal guarantee that we are in a singularity.”

    Mashu and Ritsuka looked at one another, then hurried over to the Arcadian huntress, the other Servants joining them. When they all saw what Atalanta had to show them, they could only share a stupefied look at one another.

    “Yeah. S-Singularity. Or at least we’d r-really better hope it is,” stammered Ritsuka as he stared out over the blackened, dead wreckage. “I’m kind of afraid of what the alternative would be.”

    For a moment, both Master and Servants had turned away.

    There was a flash of silver from the opposite end of the hall. Atalanta whipped her head to look at what she thought she saw, but by the time her eyes reached the hall, it was already gone.

    “Master… I don’t know what it is, but I think there’s something in here with us…”

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Back in the control room all the crew members who weren’t still looking blankly at the rayshift chamber after the spectacle it had shown them were all staring at Da Vinci. It was no surprise. She looked… different. The expression was completely foreign on her features. She was horrified, standing in front of the observation window.

    The expression on her face was one of stupefaction. Complete and utter confusion. She didn’t have even the first inkling how the event that just took place had occurred. The microphone lay uselessly on the floor behind her.

    “Uh… Miss Da Vinci?” asked a member of the crew.

    She didn’t seem to hear him.

    “Miss Da Vinci!”

    The chief of staff jumped. Grabbing a nearby console to steady herself.

    “…Yes?” she asked.

    “Is-is everything alri—”

    NO! Are you insane?! Nothing is alright! Do you have any idea what just happened?!”

    “I’m sorry, I was actually going to ask, but you seem really upset.”

    Da Vinci sighed, lowering her head helplessly.

    “No, I’m sorry. I’ve made… a monumental error. Does anyone here know what we all just saw?”

    People answered in different ways, but none of them in the affirmative.

    “I didn’t expect you to. But this is a disaster. If I’m not extremely lucky—and I say ‘I,’ not ‘we,’ because I take full responsibility for this mess—we may never see Master Fujimaru or Miss Kyrielight ever again.”

    “Please don’t leave us in suspense,” urged the crewman, “what happened?

    “Before I can do that, you first need to understand that if any of you were to admit to having seen that, your lives will be at risk.”

    The room erupted in nervous murmuring.

    “I mean it! The Mages Association will not take this lightly. If word of this gets out, you may not be safe anywhere but here for the rest of your lives, if indeed Chaldea remains safe at all. They will have Enforcers looking for each and every one of you if even a whisper of this event leaves this facility. They will gleefully hold friends and loved ones hostage in order to place sealing designations on all the mages, and exterminate everyone else! Do you still want to know what you just saw?”

    The staff continued arguing before a woman approached Da Vinci and said a few words that no one had the heart to argue with:

    “The way I see it, we don’t have a choice.”

    Da Vinci looked at her as though she didn’t understand what she was saying.

    “You obviously know, and you might be able to do something about it, but doing it on your own… it'll probably take too long. If we don’t know what we’re up against, then we can’t help you, and if we can’t help you, then we’re effectively condemning Mr. Fujimaru and Ms. Kyrielight. To that end, I’m sure we can all just ‘forget’ that this event ever took place. Or for that matter, we could just have our memories altered, if security is that serious. All in favour?”

    The rest of the staff looked hesitant, but they all raised their hands. Da Vinci’s mechanical fingers tightened around her staff. She sighed, took a deep breath, and nodded.

    “Okay… I suppose that’s as much as I can hope for. Thank you. Everyone… the phenomenon that just occurred in the rayshift chamber… was Kaleidoscope.

    “It was Second Magic.”

  4. #4
    Hey, I ain’t no lizard! Draconic's Avatar
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    The acrid scent of scorched metal was beyond pervasive, even along the ground. Of course, the fumes themselves were much worse, burning in their eyes, and choking them when they inhaled it. There were no flames to be seen either, so they weren't even sure where they were coming from. While Ritsuka and Mashu found themselves covering their noses, they noticed that Atalanta was trying not to breathe at all.

    "Don't strain yourself," Mashu said in a feeble attempt to calm the huntress' nerves. The sound of her own voice startled her, to say nothing of Atalanta, who jumped and had an arrow nocked in the next second.

    "…I'm sorry," Mashu whispered.

    Atalanta didn't say anything. She just took a deep breath, nodded, and relaxed her grip on her bow, letting the arrow vanish. The group continued toward the main foyer.

    At least, that's where they hoped they were going…



    File 002: The Empty House



    In reality, they had no idea where they were going. The lack of nameplates on the doors and the fact that they only seemed to be finding more staff dorms didn't help either, and even that was sometimes an issue because the lights weren't working properly, flickering on and off at irregular intervals.

    The deafening silence only added more weight to the oppressive atmosphere, and the longer they didn't say anything, the harder it became to even consider making a noise. Every sound made them jump. A cough, a heavy footstep, even breathing too loudly was enough to startle some among the group. Some of them were already getting chills up their spines.

    Altera was looking around in what could easily be mistaken for a casual gesture, but she never did anything casually. That she was looking around at all was extremely strange. She was extremely reserved in all things that had no relation to violence, and was never the type to just take in the sights. And there wasn't a lot to see here to begin with. Was this what Altera looked like when she was uncomfortable?

    They couldn't continue like this, but neither could they waste time or let their minds wander. They had to keep moving, even if they only had the vaguest notion of where they were going, or their mere environment could be their undoing. And it was true: They really didn't know where they were inside the facility.

    Chaldea was a little like an iceberg. Near the top of their Antarctic mountain range sat a four story building. The first floor was surrounded by the shuttle bay, and each of the floors above it had very high ceilings. But these four floors were merely a fraction of its full size. The vast majority of Chaldea was found within the many halls directly hollowed out of the mountain itself. There was more than twice the number of basements than there were floors above-ground. Ten basements, to be specific, most of which consisted almost entirely of employee dormitories. The closer to the bottom floor, the higher the importance. B10 held CHALDEAS and the Rayshift Deployment Hall while the Command Center was two floors above, on B8. That was also where the medical bay was, as well as the cafeteria. Despite her high rank, Mashu's room was on B1, because she had wanted to be on a floor with more windows.

    Most floors had their own communal areas. Kitchens, lounges—closer to break rooms, really—storage areas, and various other amenities. Some differed depending on the floor. For instance, while there was a pool on B03, on B04 there was a gymnasium. Which wasn't to say that some floors didn't have multiple such facilities. The trouble was that they still hadn't found anything other than employee living spaces so far, and were already having enough difficulty finding their way around. There was no shortage of cave-ins. In some places they could be climbed over, but they usually just blocked off the halls. Surely if the floors above had collapsed they would at least be able to climb the rubble to a different floor in some places, but they hadn't come across any such instances.

    They also had yet to find the stairs or the elevators. Even a window to the outside would be helpful because one of those could at least give them an indication as to how high up on the mountain they were.

    "Has anyone seen anything in particular that they thought might be worth investigating?" Mashu whispered.

    No one else made a sound, but all present company shook their heads.

    It really was far too quiet. She was starting to wonder if her eyes had been playing tricks on her earlier. It seemed very much like they were alone here.

    She hadn't been here long enough to consider the possibility that she was losing her mind yet, however she was finding it difficult to explain that burst of movement from a few minutes earlier.

    There was a faint rumble from somewhere above their heads. Settling debris, perhaps? What else would be here? All they could do was keep searching until they reached an answer. At the very least, the sound coming from above them meant that if they they were above ground, they were unlikely to be very far so.

    The sound of something clattering to the floor nearby had all the Servants on their guard. Lancelot snarled, but he moved closer to the source of the noise, the rest of the party following behind the mad knight as he stalked towards a door that seemed to have been torn open from within. He stepped through the damaged metal gap and brandished his blackened Arondight—only to find the same thing they'd been greeted with behind every other door they'd gone through: an empty room. The source of the noise had been an electric lamp. The power cord had snapped and the metal frame toppled over. The raw wires coming from the side still connected to an outlet sparked pitifully. As for how the cord snapped, there was a large, but sharp piece of rubble that looked like it might have been gently putting pressure on the cable for some time in a place that it had been elevated above the floor. It was an irritating coincidence.

    Between the flickering lights, the sparking wire, and the faint electrical humming, it was no more welcoming than any of the previous rooms they'd visited.

    Although as Ritsuka noticed, it wasn't completely empty.

    "What's this?" Ritsuka muttered to himself, picking up a sheet of paper left on an end table in a corner of the room.

    Before he had a chance to examine it however, Atalanta jerked her head around to look out the broken door.

    "Is something wrong?"

    The lioness was trembling and her ears were twitching wildly, as though she were trying to listen for something.

    "N-No, it's nothing. Dammit. I was imagining things. It's merely all this silence playing havoc on my nerves."

    "If you say so," he shook his head, "But if something's bothering you, please don't keep it a secret."

    "I won't. I promise."

    "Mashu, stand guard for a minute," Ritsuka added. His Servant nodded and promptly sallied over to the broken door, shield raised. Despite no threats having presented themselves (yet), he still felt more secure, at least enough for him to look back at the page he'd picked up and start reading.



    There's no point in leaving notes anymore. There will never be anyone to find them, so there's no logical reason for me to even be writing this. However by putting pen to paper I feel like I'm putting off the inevitable. I have no reason to believe that, of course, beyond a vague feeling, like something horrible receding deep within me. But that's better than the alternative.

    I would say that I'm writing to keep myself sane, but honestly, I pity anyone who can cling to their sanity until the hideous end. Especially under the circumstances.

    It's been only half a year since everything came to a screeching halt. We had five Masters, and it seemed like we were going to make it until the fourth singularity. We ended up in Japan again, this time during a Chinese invasion by Emperor Zhou. It was a massive singularity and we ended up having to cross the sea into China.

    I can hear something coming. If I'm still myself, I'll continue this another time. If not, I suppose it won't particularly matter. Either way, I'm as good as dead.



    "I must admit, this note does nothing to reassure me," said Altera. Despite her melancholy, Ritsuka found himself smiling. Something about her being her usual self despite the twisted surroundings. Nevertheless, she was right. The note possessed an unsettling quality. Besides the nihilistic tone and the obvious references the writer made to going insane, there was just an inherent wrongness to it. The handwriting itself was disturbed. Dark, overprecise. The person who wrote it had gone over each of the letters several times.

    He didn't know what compelled him to hold onto the page, but he folded it and stuffed it into his back pocket. They didn't have time to stand around idly.

    "Let's keep moving."

    They left the room emptier than before, sidestepping another shallow heap of black slime as they made their way further down the hall. It took them a few twists and turns and even cutting through rooms with broken walls, but they eventually found a cave-in by which they could climb up to another floor. Ritsuka clambered up over the rubble, avoiding the sharp edges of twisted metal jutting out from the debris. There was another thumping sound, and Atalanta confirmed that it had probably come from somewhere on the floor they were now on, though most likely in the opposite direction. If they had wanted to investigate the noise, Ritsuka could have let one of the Servants carry him and jump to the opposite side of the hole they had climbed out of, but the idea of seeking out more unidentified noises didn't enthuse any among present company, even though the last source had been truly mundane.

    Still they wandered, and still all they could find were dormitories. They did come across a number of communal alcoves, but they were all thoroughly abandoned. The most they had discovered was one that had a few beer cans and the remains of what looked like it might have been some sort of quiche if they'd come here a year earlier. The meat was rotting, and though there weren't any flies, the smell was unbearable. A quick examination revealed that some of the cans were still partially-full.

    There was very little warning; a faint screeching sound, like rusty metal tearing under pressure in the distance. As soon as they got their wits about them again, the whole group was jarred by a cacophonous groaning, and they nearly froze from the sheer volume after several hours of near-silence, but they still had the presence of kind to take cover right away, because they recognized the sound. It was the sound of a building collapsing. However, it seemed that whatever fell didn't hit bottom, or else was just too deep in the facility for them to hear the crash, though that seemed unlikely.

    "Add that to the list of things to investigate once we figure out where we are," Ritsuka muttered.

    "If I may, have you tried getting in contact with Da Vinci again?" Siegfried asked. "If we can reach her she may be able to assist."

    The Saber had a point, but he wasn't holding out much hope of success. He pulled out his Chaldea holocommunicator and tried to get a connection.

    There was a moment of static that startled everyone, and after a few seconds, he could hear a few garbled voices, but none were even clear enough to recognize, much less decipher. He let this go on for about a minute, but after that, he shook his head.

    "This isn't working," he said, stowing the communicator.

    "Still in the dark, then." Atalanta clenched one hand.

    Mashu sighed.

    "Don't worry, Senpai. I'm sure we'll manage somehow."

    He would have felt better about her attempt at reassuring him if she had sounded more confident in her conviction. But like all of them, she was just on edge.

    They rounded the next corner and finally found another clue. But like the note, it was extremely vague in its substance. It's form however was obvious. Unpleasantly so. It was very old, but they could still smell iron.

    "What in the world?" Siegfried mumbled.

    There, scrawled messily along the wall, was a giant brown stain, painted into giant letters across most of its length.



    She's not who you think she is!!



    "Is that…" Ritsuka tried to ask, but found himself too hesitant.

    "Yes, I believe so, Senpai," Mashu took a deep but unsteady breath. "It was written in blood. A long time ago."

    "What does that mean for us?" Ritsuka asked.

    Altera cleared her throat.

    "It means that it would be best not to linger here," she said. She sounded as detached as always, but something about that was almost soothing. "There is a great deal of blood here, yet there is no body, nor even a trail to follow that might lead us to one. Humans do not simply disappear."

    It was an obvious thing to say, but she was right, and Ritsuka could tell that there was a fair bit of meaning in what she didn't say as well: This blood could not have belonged to a Servant. Within a few minutes of being shed, it would all just evaporate into residual spiritual energy, and it would vanish immediately if the Servant had been killed. No Servant would bother leaving this message on the wall, because no one would see it, and no human could conceivably force them to do it without being the Master of the Servant in question. In that circumstance, the Master simply wouldn't give such a foolish order unless they were profoundly stupid, or else had it put for their Servant for some reason.

    Whatever the case, it was possible that whatever had killed the person who left the message was still lurking somewhere nearby. Unlikely, perhaps considering the blood's condition, but it would be far from the first time the Chaldeans encountered something thoroughly improbable. So they took Altera's advice. No reason to stand about idly by a bloodied wall.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    They continued making a point of checking every door they came across. Most were jammed, but with the exception of Mashu, that didn't stop Servants from looking inside. However they were empty just as often as not, and many were filled with nothing but rubble, occasionally with odd patches of oily back sludge. Whatever those were, they smelled foul and looked sticky, so they avoided getting too close whenever possible. Atalanta briefly knelt down near a patch of it, and making sure not to directly inhale, wafted some of the air above it towards her face. She immediately wrinkled her nose in disgust.

    "Avoid that," she said, still keeping her voice down. "It smells of… too many things at once… yet also… not at the same time. It was very strange. I could smell gasoline, rotten entrails and overripe fruit, and the scent also left a bitter tang in the air. I suspect it's toxic, so take care not to touch it. Avoid getting too close as well."

    The rest of the party nodded in agreement.

    Too close… at the moment, Atalanta felt like they were too close. But despite her best efforts, she couldn't bring anything to mind that might resemble their current situation. What were they getting too close to? Was it dangerous? Whatever it was, it was either phenomenally good at masking its presence, or somehow managing to make all members of the team overreact, and that spoke more of themselves than of some hypothetical being.

    Having spent several hours within the strange singularity already, they were all beginning to tire, a sensation only compounded by the knowledge that they had yet to accomplish anything. They hadn't found any people, there were no monsters to be seen, and they had virtually no information about what happened in this Chaldea beyond a vague message on the wall and an unpleasantly nihilistic note.

    Ritsuka suggested that they stop to rest in the next empty dormitory they found, and no one argued. Considering the abundance of that particular commodity they didn't expect that finding one would take much longer than a few minutes. However the next two that they found were both blocked by rubble, and the hallway itself had collapsed further along. Breaking through a few rocks, shards of debris and warped pieces of metal would have been a trifling matter to any of the Servants, of course, but they still were too affected by the unearthly stillness, and breaking the silence with a violent attack didn't appeal to any of them. There was a visibly open door near where the ceiling had collapsed however. A quick glance inside showed a room accessible to the Master and Demi-Servant, and a scorched hole in the wall of its washroom, around where the sink and mirrored cabinet should have been. All that was left were a few pipes, shattered and rusting, and shards of glass. The corridor beyond it was in much the same condition, partially blackened and riddled with shallow craters from what must have been a fierce but short fight. Someone had been throwing fire about haphazardly. Whether it had been an ally or an enemy was a mystery that they would likely have to resign themselves to never solving. There was no residual heat, and even the damaged walls were more grey than black. Whatever had happened took place a long time ago.

    'Maybe even around the same time that someone wrote that message on the wall…' Ritsuka thought, trying to hide the discomfort the notion brought with it. Mashu sidled over to him and put a hand on his shoulder, so he probably hadn't done a good job of it.

    Having followed up on that quest of curiosity, he returned to the damaged dormitory and sat down on the bed. He was getting hungry and they hadn't had the foresight to bring food with them. It wasn't really their fault of course. This was the first Singularity they had encountered that didn't seem to have any inhabitants or resources anywhere.

    "Damn," he moaned. "I hope that we can at least find a vending machine or something…" Mashu was quick to agree. Water was another problem, but for that, all they'd have to do was test the faucets in another dorm's bathroom. There were also water fountains throughout the facility. They just needed to find one that worked. If not… well, there were vending machines. The problem was that they didn't seem to be finding anything.

    They passed a few minutes (relatively) comfortably, not speaking very much. They spent some of that time speculating on possible meanings for the bloody message that had been left on the wall a few halls back.

    "I apologize if this is too blunt or otherwise too morose for your sensibilities," said Hassan, "but in my professional opinion as an assassin, the only thing I could conclude from the message was that we are too late to save whomsoever wrote it."

    "It's fine, Hassan. It's not like dark hypotheses about what happened to the people who should be in an abandoned building are misplaced, given the situation."

    "Indeed, Master," Siegfried nodded, with his signature obedience, but there was something off about him. He seemed weirdly distracted, like he was trying to hear something across a great distance. This grew disconcerting to Atalanta after only a few minutes, because she couldn't hear anything. As if the unnatural silence couldn't get any worse.

    "I think that it is actually rather unfortunate that the blood was long dry," she muttered. "It means that if whoever scrawled it is still alive, they're long gone by now. I am not eager to meet anyone in the habit of writing bloody messages on walls, but they would at least be able to elaborate on what they meant."

    "I'm not actually sure that I'd want to hear that straight from the horse's mouth anyway," Mashu lowered her eyes.

    Siegfried stood up.

    "If you'll excuse me, Master, I would like to have a look around the area."

    Atalanta narrowed her eyes.

    "I think I should accompany him."

    "Thank you for your concern, but I don't expect that will be necessary."

    "Your confidence is noted, and I am going to join you regardless," Atalanta responded firmly.

    As the Master, it fell to Ritsuka to resolve this matter before it escalated, and though he did trust Siegfried to manage on his own, he didn't really want anyone to be by themselves right now. Splitting up during a creepy situation was just tempting fate.

    "Siegfried, let her accompany you," he said. Atalanta gave a nod of her head in appreciation, and followed the Saber out through the hole in the wall.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    The moment they were out of the Master's earshot, Atalanta addressed the elephant in the hall.

    "I don't hear anything."

    "Pardon?" Siegfried responded uncertainly, coming to a halt, to Atalanta's relief.

    "I… do not… hear anything," she repeated herself. "Which makes me wonder what you're listening to."

    "I'm not sure what you mean, Archer."

    "You're as capable of fooling me as you are of killing a puppy by your own will," she deadpanned. "I realize your intention is to avoid worrying anyone. So let me just say that the more you hide from us, the more agitated we will all get."

    Siegfried didn't answer immediately, but from the look on his face, he seemed to be having an internal battle of sorts. Unfortunately, that was a step in the right direction.

    "You hear something that the rest of us can't. Did you not consider for even a moment that you might be under the influence of an enemy?"

    The Saber shook his head and sighed. "Yes, I did consider that possibility. However I decided that it was more important that I try to rescue whoever might be in danger. I can hear someone calling for help. The possible benefit outweighs the risks."

    Well, she knew the man was a fool, but this was just contemptible.

    "Nonsense. You're completely insane if you genuinely think that. If I cannot hear anything, then I can assure you that no one is calling for help."

    "You may be right. However I would still like to search for the source—"

    "Denied," Atalanta said, not even giving the notion a moment's consideration. "If you go looking for trouble, you will almost certainly find it. I would advise you not to start."

    Siegfried clenched one fist.

    "I can still hear her voice."

    "Then ignore 'her,' whoever 'she' is. There is no one else here. We are in an empty building. Now return with me."

    The Saber huffed, but didn't argue.

    As obedient as a spaniel,' Atalanta rolled her eyes. When they returned to the dormitory, she hoped the Master would be ready to move on again, but this proved to be wishful thinking. So she decided to curl up in a corner and rest her eyes.

    Just for a little while.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    Atalanta spent the next hour after they continued on their way keeping an eye on Siegfried. Her excuse was that she would bring up the rear and watch for any danger approaching from behind, but her real reason was that she just wanted to make sure the dragonslayer didn't wander off, or start listening to whatever that voice in his head was. In her opinion, it was just as likely as not that the obsessive do-gooder had just snapped. Or that's what she wanted to tell herself. It was less disturbing than most of the alternatives.

    Guarding the rear however quickly proved to give her a whole host of new insecurities as well. Every tingle she got on the back of her neck, every sound that might have come from somewhere else in the building, made her jump. She was getting worked up over nothing.

    It was likely for the best if she returned the role to Altera. The thought had just crossed her mind as she was following the party into another dormitory. Then she realized that everyone had stopped. It didn't take her long to figure out why. It was written all over the room.

    Literally.

    It was just a single phrase written over and over again wherever there was room.

    DON'T READ IT

    Every surface in the dormitory was covered in red ink, the words always spelling out the same thing: Don't read it. The case of the letters changed sometimes, but the message itself never did. And it was everywhere.

    "You don't suppose this has something to do with either of the previous things we've seen so far, do you?" asked Hassan.

    "I hope not…" Mashu shivered.

    "That would be unfortunate, but mostly, it would just be strange, I think," Altera added. "I can't think of any way for that combination to make sense."

    She was right. It didn't make sense. But nevertheless, there was too much uncertainty about this whole place in general.

    Something hissed somewhere in the distance, the sound of steam escaping from an enclosed space. The facility was falling apart. Whatever had taken place here, there obviously wasn't anyone left who could maintain the place. Even the robotic vacuum cleaners needed to be programmed at least once a month, and it was clear that those were nonfunctional. A thin layer of dust coated most surfaces.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    It took a little while longer, but they eventually located a stairwell, which gave the party some indication of where they were. There were, of course, several stairwells throughout the complex, so it was a loose indication, to be sure, but it was better than nothing. Of course, the stairs leading up had collapsed into the stairwell below, rendering the lower levels inaccessible.

    "Only one way to go, I guess," Ritsuka muttered as he began climbing up the rubble, flanked by Shielder and Berserker.

    "Mashu, are you doing okay?" he asked. His concern was justified. At least in his opinion. He might not have had power, but she did, and she was looking strained anyway. …He was playing favorites. He knew it was wrong, but it was hard not to. Mashu wasn't just his first Servant: She was the first person he'd met at Chaldea; she'd accompanied him everywhere except for the four Remnant Order Singularities, and never left his side no matter how bad things got. He couldn't help but worry for her.

    Didn't she deserve it anyway? When Goetia had used his Noble Phantasm, it was Mashu who stood in his way and saved the world, at the cost of her own life. He had never felt so much hatred for anything as he did for Goetia in that moment. Because Mashu hadn't stood up to those rings of light for the sake of the world. She had no grand ideals, or dreams of being a hero. She hadn't done it to preserve human history, to save the world, or even because it was the right thing to do. She had done it for no other reason than to protect him.

    "Senpai, do you need some help getting up here?"

    If anything, treating her like she was the same as any of the other Servants was morally objectionable. Practically a sign of contempt.

    "Senpai?"

    She was his closest friend.

    "Senpai, stop daydreaming, I know you're hungry—I am too—but we won't find any food by dawdling here. It's not safe either.

    Daydreaming? He wasn't… wait, he really had spaced out for a minute there. Damn. And it was an embarrassing train of thought, too. She was also right about it not being safe; he was perched on loose staircase wreckage, for god's sake…

    "Yeah, sorry. I'll get a move on."

    Berserker's face couldn't be seen through his helmet, but Ritsuka could feel him rolling his eyes. Or maybe it was Atalanta? No, they were both—oh for the love of–get to a stable section of floorspace at least!

    He needed food and water, and soon, or he wasn't going to last. He remembered that some of the stairwells had vending machines, maybe there were some nearby?

    "Oh! Good news!"

    Wait, was their luck starting to turn?

    "Did you find a vending machine?" he asked, looking to see Mashu pointing somewhere up the stairs and behind him.

    "Yes. It's… almost empty actually, but I think a few bags of chips should tide us over until we can find something better," Mashu nodded. It had been broken into already, so there was no need to smash it open, which was a relief. They were all still liable to jump at any loud noise, which made chips less than ideal, but at the moment, they needed to eat, or they were going to start making mistakes.

    They carefully opened their bags of improvised rations and

    Now they just had to find a decent landmark.

    * * * * * * * * * *

    It took almost twenty minutes for Ritsuka and Mashu to finish their respective snacks without making loud crunching noises. Not that anyone was around to hear… what were they even afraid of? As far as their search had indicated, there was nothing here. They were the only things moving in this entire building.

    Even so…

    "Atalanta, Hassan, can you go scout for us," asked Ritsuka. It was worded as a question, but voiced as an order. Hunger and fatigue were getting to him. Still, he figured that he'd be less irritablein a few minutes. He had to admit that the potato chips he'd just eaten seemed to be having an effect, even if it wasn't as significant as any of them would prefer.

    The stifling sensation faded slightly as they arrived at their destination. However, it only gave way to something worse. Something was wrong. Or rather, was even more wrong than everything else was already.

    Another scent joined the burnt metal. It was also metallic, but it was different. The scent was very stale. But however old it might have been, it was still easily recognizable. And they quickly found its source.

    Along the wall was an immense brown stain, the skeleton laying beneath it a grim hint as to what left it there. On the other hand, the rest couldn't have been left there by the long dead person who now lay before them: Scrawled against the wall was a message:

    THE CHILDREN ARE HERE! THE CHILDREN ARE HERE! AND THEY ARE SO VERY HUNGRY

    It was written in blood, and as the color, and skeletal remains suggested, it had been there for a long time.

    Atalanta had her fists clenched.

    "What do you think it means?" Mashu asked them.

    "I don't think this refers to actual children," she whispered, shivering.

    It was both a comforting and a chilling thought. At the very least, they weren't going to be eaten alive by things that looked like a bunch of kids. But at the same time, what was this grotesque message referring to?

    "There is something else written upon the wall," Hassan mused, pointing to something written in neat—if faded—black marker:


    Do you taste tree bark and blood?
    Then rip off your head.
    You can't feel it yet
    But you're already dead!


    "W-What… in the world…?" Mashu stammered, going pale at the thought. "Why is it telling us to…?"

    "It rhymes… I find it likely that whoever wrote that had gone thoroughly mad," Siegfried suggested, "or at the very least, was not of sound mind."

    Altera nodded in quiet agreement.

    The other Servants were looking around the hall, and there were a number of other skeletons, some still with some flesh hanging sickeningly from the bones, though very few did. All of them were wearing Chaldea uniforms, complete with nameplates. Ritsuka felt a little ashamed at the relief he felt upon seeing that none of them had been people he knew. Were these people staff who'd died when Leff's bombs went off?

    There was a bloody streak at the edge of the Y at the end of the larger message that continued along the wall all the way around a corner, as though someone had been supporting themselves against it while bleeding from their side. Noticing Siegfried eyeing it with intrigue, Ritsuka nodded to him and whispered, "You can investigate if you're curious."

    The Nordic hero gave a quick nod back, and proceeded around the corner. Ritsuka continued staring at the two strange messages in front of the group.

    He took out his cellphone, really just a smaller version of the standard Chaldea tablet, and took a picture of them both, then added each of them to a note.

    'The children are here…' What could that mean? The second part seemed to speak for itself. He wanted to believe that the mutilated bodies in the room weren't victims of something that had partially eaten them, but when he finally drummed up the physical and psychological fortitude to actually take a look at one of the bodies, he did notice odd scrapes and indentations in the bones.

    Bite marks. There was no mistaking them… bite marks from something with long, sharp teeth. Ritsuka's stomach lurched.

    That wasn't all. One of the bodies had its ribcage shattered, another had its torso twisted almost all the way around above the pelvis, the spinal cord just barely holding the upper and lower halves of the corpse together. Of course, there was one that had been torn in half, lengthwise. The skull had come away with the right half of the victim's body and the spine was just a complete mess. A grotesque lump of flesh that might have been an eye but was too decayed for him to say for certain, hung morbidly in the left eye socket. There was some flesh on the lower jaw as well, and the hand on this half of the body at least still had some skin, though it was rotting as much as anything else.

    There were plenty of other nightmarish sights to behold, but Ritsuka decided to give himself some time to recover from the things he'd already seen.

    Ultimately, he could only draw one conclusion from what he'd found: Whatever had killed these people apparently liked to play with its food. Beyond that, he had no idea what it could have been.

    Altera gingerly prodded at one of the bodies with the Sword of Mars, just testing to make sure that it wasn't about to get back up and attack them. The first one that the weapon touched obediently toppled over and clattered along the ground, startling everyone present in the hall with the possible exception of Hassan.

    Then the lights flickered, accompanied by the sound of short-circuiting electronics. Ritsuka put a hand to his chest, taking deep breaths in an effort to steady his heart which was pounding uncomfortably against his ribs.

    "Damn, that scared me," he whispered. Looking around in the inconsistent light, he tried to determine where everything was. There were several halls out of the atrium besides the one they'd come from. Directly across the hall was another corridor full of employee living space, most of which had been relegated to Servants in the proper world.

    Then there were the staircases on each side of the atrium leading up to the leading upstairs

    Ritsuka was going to keep investigating when they heard it.

    —Thump—…shhhfff—…Thump—…Thump—…shhhfff—…

    There was a shuffling noise above them and Mashu looked up. She could hear thick-sounding footfalls from just above their heads.

    Something was on the second floor walkway overlooking the atrium. The Servants all froze and looked to their Master for orders. Ritsuka just pressed a finger to his lips and shook his head. He had gone as stiff as the rest of them but for one of his arms and his head. Gesturing to Hassan, he gave the Assassin alone the instruction to check out whatever was prowling there using hand gestures. The assassin of the Cursed Arm nodded and vanished from sight.

    The others waited, holding their breath as the shuffling-dragging noise continued moving across the walkway. Ritsuka could hear his blood pounding in his ears and found himself worrying that the thing above them would find them from the sound of his heartbeat. He knew it was irrational, but he couldn't avoid the thought.

    They only dared move again when they couldn't hear that hideous sound anymore.

    "Is it—?" Ritsuka whispered only for Atalanta to give him a wild glare, pressing a finger to her mouth, baring her teeth. She was bristling like a frightened cat. It was a comparison that she'd have had his head for if he'd voiced it, but he could honestly say that her reaction was completely justified. He didn't have any idea what had just passed above their heads, but whatever it was, it was different from any Phantasmal Beast they'd come across.

    The sensation that came of being in its presence wasn't one of danger like chimeras. There was no aura of raw, overwhelming power like he'd come to associate with dragonkin. Whatever this… thing was, it gave off a pall of sheer, formless dread. It was like a child's fear of the dark, but compounded exponentially. It was the feeling of that make-believe monster hiding in your closet actually showing itself; of it opening up the door, and slowly, yet inescapably coming to get you. Coming to get you so that it could gobble you up…

    If Medusa were here with her sisters, they couldn't have petrified the team as effectively as this one as-of-yet nameless thing.

    It was only when that sensation finally passed that he realized that Mashu was clinging to him in fright, her shield up, guarding them against an invisible foe, or perhaps just blocking her view of it in case it actually was there.

    It seemed she hadn't noticed this development yet either. Normally, he figured he'd be enjoying this, but under the circumstances… no. He was in some strange version of his home for the past year, except in the form of a shattered skeleton of what it was supposed to be, to say nothing of the very real skeletons in the room with them. And it wasn't like the chills he'd been getting had stopped.

    Even once there was absolutely no chance of… whatever it was… still being nearby, no one moved. It was another five minutes and an eternity later that Ritsuka finally drummed up the nerve to speak again.

    "It's gone, right?" he whispered. Despite how quietly he was speaking, the sound of his own voice still sent shivers up and down his spine.

    Atalanta's ears twitched a few times, her head tilted upwards. Slowly… so slowly… she drew Tauropolos, nocked four arrows, and crept out from underneath the second floor walkway. She couldn't immediately see anything, and took that as a good enough sign to continue moving further back. She made a standing jump and got a good view of the overlooking hallway. As she suspected, there was nothing there.

    Not anymore.

    In a way, it was a relief. Ritsuka wasn't sure he was prepared to meet whatever had actually done… all of this. There were so many corpses, and this was basically just the front hall…

    They needed to get—

    Something fell from above them, and landed on Mashu's head. She caught it reflexively as it rolled off of her. It was round(ish) but she couldn't really discern anything anything about it. Then she turned it over.

    "MMMMMMMMMPPPPHHHH!" Mashu shrieked, muffling the sound significantly by clamping a hand over her mouth and nose, tossing the strange object across the floor in the process. "MMMMMMMPPPPPHHH!" she screamed again only for Atalanta to smack her to quiet her down. Ritsuka looked at her to see what had startled her, to find himself looking at… what was it? For a few moments he puzzled over why some random object had frightened his Shield like that…

    …until he discerned the pair of violently gored eye-sockets. Which meant that grotesquely huge, red cavity was… a person's… mouth?! He bit back a yelp of his own and tried to calm his Servant, but he was trembling just as much as her.

    What the hell had happened to this person? Forget decapitation, this was positively bizarre. The mouth had been widened by a positively hideous margin, most of the cheeks being torn open to make room for the twisted grin. That and it looked like two more incisions had been made so that the face also opened up vertically, like a bloody paper fortune teller.

    It was only after a few moments that he realized he'd just seen this man in the command booth. He tried to avoid throwing up in disgust but only managed to swallow it before it fell from his mouth. Mashu's hysterical reaction was appearing more and more justifiable.

    This was a bad place to be. They had to get back home. That unfortunately meant that they'd need to resolve this singularity. He supposed that they'd all just need to do it as fast as they possibly could.

    "We should get moving," he whispered, his voice shakier than he had intended. "Someone tell Siegfried that we're leaving." Atalanta swallowed and went around the corner marked by that streak of blood.

    "M-Master?"

    "Yes?"

    "What should we do if… never mind, just… just give me a moment. Damn this atmosphere," she muttered, "Why do I feel like I'm the one being hunted?"

    She ran down the hallway, opening doors as she went along and checking each of the nearby rooms that weren't blocked by rubble. They were all vacant.

    She didn't want to believe it, but she was coming to a rather unsettling conclusion. She hadn't even heard anything to suggest there was a struggle.

    She returned to the atrium.

    "Master," she said, "he isn't there."

    "What?" Ritsuka sputtered.

    "How could he not be there?" Mashu asked, running over to the hallway to see for herself. She didn't take very long.

    "He's just… gone," she whispered.

    "I don't understand, how could he have just… up and vanished?" Ritsuka asked.

    "I don't know," Atalanta growled, "I didn't hear anything," her ears twitched in agitation. "I should have heard something!"

    "Okay, I noticed there's still a door opposite where we entered the room, so guess that leaves us with two choices: which hallway should we follow?"

    "Incorrect. The hall opposite the one we came from is the only viable path. The ceiling was caved in around the next corner," Atalanta answered. "It doesn't make sense. What could have killed him without so much as a sound?"

    "We don't know he's dead—" Mashu tried to reassure the huntress.

    "It is the most likely explanation," Altera interrupted.

    "He could just be in spirit form…" Ritsuka tried.

    Berserker growled to silence him.

    "Okay… okay… I get it. I just… I wanted to keep hoping he was okay…"

    "None of us are okay," Altera responded softly. "I can guarantee that much as long as we remain here."

    Ritsuka sighed. This was altogether too pessimistic.

    And then something buzzed, nearly making all present parties jump out of their skin.

    Once the initial shock wore off, Ritsuka reached into his pocket and pulled out his Chaldea holocommunicator, pressing the button on the side.

    "Oh, thank God! I finally got through! Everyone! We have contact!" Da Vinci's voice blared out of the speakers along with a staticky image. "This is normally the part where I remind everyone how much of a genius I am, but I'm still too worried." A nervous, almost maniacal laugh. "What's happened? I can barely even see a clear image of your face. What is going on down there?"

    "First of all, keep your voice down, there's… something in here with us. Or… there was something before and we don't want to lure it back."

    "I can do that," Da Vinci nodded, lowering her voice accordingly.

    Ritsuka sighed as he began to explain what was happening on their end, relaying everything that had happened since they arrived.

    "The long and short of it is that, so far as we can tell, we're in Chaldea, except everyone's…" he gulped. "Everyone's dead. Siegfried's gone missing by the way. Has he returned to Chaldea yet? Ours, I mean?"

    "No, there's been no sign of rematerialization on any of our status charts. And Siegfried is still listed as Active. Are you sure he was killed?

    "Well… he's vanished and won't answer when I call for him, I still feel a drain on my mana but we're still assuming. There aren't any other plausible explanations. I mean, the man always follows my instructions to the letter. He actually worries me sometimes that he doesn't know how to think for himself.

    "That's a little harsh, Senpai."

    "Harsh, but regrettably true," Da Vinci said pointedly, "And Siegfried isn't exactly the type to pull a prank, so I doubt he's trying to scare you later on down the road. We've never had a Servant go MIA like this before. This isn't good, especially considering the circumstances of how you got where you are now."

    "Didn't we just rayshift?"

    The staticky image of Da Vinci shook her head

    "No, not at all. Where you are now… it's what a layman might call an alternate dimension. You're no longer in our world in any way. I don't know how it happened, but apparently, while they were in contact with that apparent singularity you find yourselves in, our equipment imitated Second Magic. What we found isn't a singularity: it's a completely different timeline. Now, if we knew more about where and when you were on a technical level… or if we could at least get visuals," she added with a growl, "I might be able to better assess the situation. For the time being, just let me know where you are."

    "The atrium at the front of the building just past the shuttle bay and assessment chambers."

    "The main foyer then. Blast, this would be absolutely fascinating if you weren't all…"

    She trailed off, looking away and seeming hesitant to continue.

    "Is something wrong?" asked the Huntress?

    Da Vinci sighed, letting her shoulders slump forward.

    "Simply put… you're stuck there. We can't retrieve you at the moment. I really wish we could, but we're still trying to work out how to reproduce the exact conditions that caused our equipment to mimic Second Magic. Even if you were to resolve… whatever this is, you wouldn't be able to get back. I can only advise you to be cautious. But if you get any opportunity to figure out what happened, you should follow any lead you find. Within reason."

    "Thank you, Da Vinci. It's okay. As long as we know you're working on this problem, we have some hope. And though it isn't much, just hearing your voice helps a lot," Mashu insisted.

    "I'm not supposed to be helping, I'm supposed to be solving the blasted problem, you—" she took a deep breath. "I'm sorry. For the first time in years, I don't have any idea what's going on or what to do about it. I don't understand. This is what regular people feel all the time? This… uncertainty? How do people cope with this?" Her prosthetic hand clenched into a fist on the console. "Here I am, being driven mad by a few variables that I can't predict, and—"

    "Da Vinci. It's okay. Don't push yourself. Just… I dunno, keep doing whatever you can to work on this. Take things one step at a time. You'll manage. You always have."

    "One can only hope. I've thrown something that I'm calling an SM Engine together to keep that timeline linked with ours, but unless we can replicate what happened earlier, it's a lost cause."

    "Da Vinci, I'm sure you'll succeed. Your inventions are good civilization," Altera added, earning a weak chuckle.

    "Thank you. For now, I'll trust you to use your own discretion. Continue investigating, but stay alert. Don't forget, you may not be alone, so be careful."

    "No need to remind us, Director," Ritsuka sighed.

    "I apologize. I didn't mean to worry you. Leonardo Da Vinci, signing off. I'll try and get back to you as soon as our connection is more reliable."

    The aforementioned connection closed even as she said the words and the present members of the group looked at one another. Berserker growled softly, turning his head in the direction of the waiting hallway.

    "Hassan will know where we've gone. I'll send him the summary of our current situation through our link. In the meantime, we're moving out.

    "We're getting to the bottom of this."

    * * * * * * * * * *

    The girl tried to steady her breathing. She rounded yet another corner and clamped a hand over her mouth. She thought she'd been hearing things when she heard the voices, but she could now see that things were far worse than she dared to consider.

    She wished that she were only going insane. They couldn't be here. They were dead. They were dead! She watched them die herself! Sat there and watched, like the helpless little tramp she was, curling up in the corner while others died for her, like always.

    She wished she could die. She wanted it more than anything in her life. To just end it. She had been given so many second chances and she'd failed to set things right every single time. All she had to do was confront those twisted, obvious fakes, and wait for them to shed their masks and devour her. And failing that, she could always find a swivel chair and some rope. But she had people to take care of. There was almost no one left, but she had finally managed to start doing her goddamn job right for once in her useless fucking life, and she'd saw off her own fingers before she threw that away.

    It wasn't just her last shreds of self-respect that were on the line. It was the people she cared about. They still needed her. She couldn't even begin to imagine why, but that's what they told her. They were probably lying. They must have hated her, after everything that her mistakes put them through. But as long as they relied on her, she'd make sure she was there for them until the weight of their lives crushed her.

    So, these doppelgängers needed to not be here. She wouldn't be deceived. Never again.

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