The room was so dark I could barely make out the face of the frightened girl at my feet. My eyesight, poor even in life, had not been greatly improved by the transition to Heroic Spirit. But even so, I had a perfect, intimate knowledge of the basement- vectors for my power explored every nook and cranny like one thousand probing fingers.
I didn't like what I found.
There were two people in the room with me. I didn't need the lacewings or flies that buzzed against their skin to tell me that- I could sense them by the worms that infested their bodies. The girl that panted before me was disturbing- a colony of tiny worms mapping out her nervous system, colonising her major organs. Despite that vivid mental image, all of my horror was presently reserved for the creature that stood behind me. As if in acknowledgement, the mass of writhing, roiling worms shaped like a man addressed me.
"Well? Speak up, Servant," the walking nightmare rasped. These worms, unlike those in the pit or the girl, seemed to resist me. They felt alien to my senses, sluggish, as though the information they were relaying to me was being filtered through syrup. As though they were already being directed by a higher consciousness.
"...Servant Rider," the words came mechanically from my mouth. "Are you my Master?" I suppressed a shudder- though the Grail had provided me with all the relevant context, the word 'master' still brought to mind the likes of Heartbreaker. Or me. My attention never wavered from the girl before me, even as I replied to the grotesque creature. The girl remained silent. A pile of worms shifted within the monster, manifesting as a dry chuckle.
"Sakura, your servant asked you a question," it prompted. Despite its amiable tone, the girl tensed as it spoke. My eyes narrowed as I felt the worm ensconced within the girl's heart. It had the same oily, fuzzy feeling as the monster. Ah. So that's what was going on. I had been here before. As I looked around, I didn't see the young woman with purple hair, or the old man with the cane. I saw a tall thin man, the image of a snake coiling around his black bodysuit. I saw a tiny, desperate girl with eyes glazed over, pleading wordlessly for my help. That settled it. I reached out with my power, taking hold of all the worms in the room. "Feed," I commanded my swarm.
The monster let out an unearthly howl as it began to devour itself. It was difficult to take hold of the worms inside the creature- the same oily veil that clouded my senses made their responses slow, half-hearted. Occasionally, one of these worms would slip from my grasp and attempt to escape, but my will was iron and my word was final.
Through it all, the girl was motionless and silent. It was terrifying- the worms that had fused to her organs had become part of her body- as I commanded them to leave, it must have felt like I was plucking her nerves out one by one. What kind of pain had she endured, that she could suffer this without screaming? But the worst was yet to come. Through it all, I had been careful to maintain a vice-like grip over the slippery, abhorrent worm in her heart.
As the monster made of worms split apart, I walked over and crushed the leftovers underfoot. With each one that died, the haze that protected the rest of them from my control diminished. I waited until all of the other worms were dead- I could not afford a single mistake with what was to come.
The girl finally screamed as I commanded the worm in her heart to extricate itself. As though the floodgates had been opened, she begged me to stop, her agony redoubling as the worm forced its way out of her. I hardened my heart. I couldn't stop now. I'd committed to this path the moment I gave the command.
As if to spite me, the monster's consciousness exerted itself one last time. Wrenching the worm from my control for just a second, it exploded from her chest and scythed through the air towards me.
It was a pathetic attempt.
With the last of the monster's worms squashed underfoot, I picked the shaking girl up off the ground. Blood flowed freely from the wound in her chest, pooling on the grimy floor beneath her. Fuck.
"Don't worry, I'll get you help," I tried to reassure her, putting the first-aid classes I'd had a lifetime ago into practice. I was a little unnerved by how much I remembered, before the Grail helpfully informed me that it had codified it as a Skill. Human Anatomy Understanding Rank D? That wasn't- no, focus Taylor.
"I'll get you to hospital," I said. Despite my efforts, she was going to need better care than I could offer. Prana thrummed through my body as I reached out for an old friend- knowing instinctively he would answer my summons.
"Not hospital," she coughed, speaking to me for the first time as I carried her gently out of the basement. Her voice was quiet, but her tone was firm. "I wish-" she coughed into my shoulder, blood flecking the spider-silk armour I had worn during my days as Skitter, "I wish Nee-san was here. She'd be able to help."
"Is she close by?" I asked, pushing open the front door. She shook her head.
"Mansion. Other side of town. Too far to walk. Not that she..." The girl trailed off, blood loss taking its toll. Clearly there was some baggage there, but that could wait. She was right though- on foot, there was no way we'd make it in time.
"We're not walking," I told her, smiling despite myself beneath my mask. Though he had died a lifetime ago on another Earth, Atlas stood patiently exactly where I'd commanded him to. He was larger than I remembered- but that wasn't important at the moment. Climbing atop him with Sakura in my arms, we took to the skies.