Last Call at Tom's Diner - Part 2
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"Lawrence! Where the hell have you been?!"

Marc was charging down the corridor towards a group of fellow M.E.G. operatives, many of which carrying large boxes and footlockers full of supplies as they moved as fast as they could down the mono-yellow hallway. The screams of thousands of people echoed all around them as he finally caught up and started running alongside them.

"Do you hear that, boys and girls?! That's the sound of ten thousand damned souls, freshly scooped-up by hell itself!" At the head of the group was Marc's commanding officer, Sergeant Amos Baker. Baker's appearance could best be described as vampiric, his physique almost guant and withered, his skin pale and sickly, and his wild mane of a hair existed in shades of mottled grays and muted reds. It was pretty well-known in the M.E.G. that Baker owed their appearance to their unusual upbringing. After all, tens of millions of people have fallen into the Backrooms in the past, but it's not often you meet someone who was born in this hellscape.

"What's the situation, Sergeant? I feel like the rest of us could use some better detail on what's going down." Baker shot a glance at Marc for speaking up, his eyes trying to burn a hole in the operative's forehead. Marc wasn't sure why, but Baker hated him, and seemingly always had as well. Most other folks in the M.E.G. got along with Baker at least somewhat well, and Marc was essentially seen as one of the most friendly folk in the entire faction, but the second the two were put in the same space, one would start to instigate conflict with the other in a matter of seconds.

Baker growled in reply. "Huh, alright, I guess some of you are entitled to some details." Baker muscled his way to the front of the group and held out his arms to stop them in their tracks. "Okay, listen up! I'm fully aware that some of you are rather confused, and probably concerned given the amount of noise those people are making, so let me break down the situation for you real quick!" As if on cue, a gunshot echoed from somewhere up ahead of them, as the intensity of the distant crowd's screams amplified to meet the powerful crack of sound. Most of the M.E.G. operatives instinctively ducked as the sound met their ears, hiding their heads under their arms only to look back up seconds later at the scornful face of Sergeant Baker. "In case it wasn't already obvious, we're dealing with a mass-arrival incident!"

"With all due respect, sir?" Another operative spoke up, likely as confused as Marc was about the situation at hand. "We've had to deal with mass-arrival incidents in the past, but those times there was never more than a hundred or so wanderers to round up. That crowd sounds like it's numbering in the thousands!" Marc noticed that he and several others were nodding their heads in agreement. He'd seen these incidents before, but the largest he'd ever heard of only had about 80 or so new arrivals. For all intents and purposes, a mass-arrival like this should've been logistically impossible.

"I'm fully aware of the abnormality of the situation, rookie!" Baker practically barked at the operatives, as if they'd asked one of the dumbest questions they could've concieved. "I don't care what kind of chaos is happening back on your precious Earth to have caused this mess, but if you're so obsessed with an explanation, you can look at the interrogation logs after everyone's been rounded up!" Another gunshot rang out from down the hallway, the shooter getting closer to the group judging by the volume of the sound. Baker gave his fingers a snap as he pointed at a trio of metal supply crates being carried along by the operatives. Most of the group quickly went to open the crates, revealing rows of bolt-action and semi-automatic rifles. Inside the lids of each box gleamed the logo of the B.N.T.G, with a sticky note hanging from the corner of each insignia, reading "Handle with care. - Mathew".

As the operatives struggled to assemble and load their firearms, the crack of yet another gun came from ahead, followed by the booming sound of footfall getting closer and closer. Marc picked up on the sound almost immediately. "Hear that? Sounds like part of the crowd is heading right towards us!" As the drumming of footsteps got closer and closer, the group stared down the hallway in anticipation of the crowd. It easily sounded like twenty or so wanderers, barreling right towards them.

Marc started to panic as the source of the noise came into view, turning a corner before careening down the hallway towards the group.

"That Clump's coming right at us! Open fire!"

Simultaneously, somewhere on the same Level…

"W-where are we going, mister?" Tom kept scanning his surroundings as he made his way back to the diner, trying to figure out where Catney could have run off to all of a sudden. Kosef sat on his shoulders the entire time, cradling an unknown baby in a blood-soaked blanket. "All those people screaming is hurting my ears…" Tom kept feeling pangs of guilt every time Kosef spoke. He knew full well that children have fallen into the Backrooms before, it happened on an almost regular basis sometimes, but most of those children would usually be rescued by the Red Knight or at least still be old enough to stand a fighting chance on their own. Kosef looked like he wasn't even ten yet, and there was no need to mention the newborn he was carrying with him. It just felt so unfair to him.

A loud crash rang out from far off behind the walls of Level 0. Tom tried to figure out what could've caused it, but wasn't sure until he heard the faint sound of wood snapping and clattering about. Someone was carving through the Level's walls to try and escape. Tom was clueless as to how all these people had arrived all of a sudden, but from the sound of them panicking and wreaking havoc, there were too many for him to guess at.

"Alright, here we are…" Tom rounded the corner and sighed in relief as they approached the diner, fumbling to unlock the door as he hurried Kosef and the newborn inside. The sounds of chaos out in the halls were muffled the minute the door shut behind them. "Okay, you two go ahead and find somewhere to sit and wait this out. Once everything's calmed down, we can take you to some people that can help." Tom lowered Kosef off of his shoulder and down to the floor, glancing around the diner for a moment before setting his eyes on the kitchen entrance. "Do you two want anything to eat, or drink?"

Kosef made his way over to a nearby booth, carefully placing the newborn on the table to free up his arms before climbing up into a chair. "I don't know what the baby wants to eat, mister, but I'd like some water please." Tom couldn't really get any normal water, but he definitely knew the closest possible option. Quickly he went behind the counter to procure a jug of Almond Water, pouring some into a small glass before making his way into the kitchen to find some milk for the baby.

Kosef was looking over the newborn while Tom poured out beverages, unwrapping the blanket they were swaddled in to make sure they weren't hurt anywhere. The baby was quiet the entire time, only letting out the occasional coo here or there as Kosef moved them around. Eventually, he came to the conclusion that while both the baby and their blanket were soaked in blood, none of it seemed to be theirs. He quickly went to try and wrap the baby back up, struggling to figure out how to properly do so. While he tried his best to properly wrap up the newborn, something on the blanket caught his eye: a small patch sewn into one of the corners that seemed to have writing on it. Licking his finger to try and wipe off some of the blood, he quickly managed to make out a name written on the patch.


At that moment, Kosef heard the door open as the sound of footsteps suggested someone had entered the diner. He turned to look at the entryway, only for his eyes to immediately widen at the sight of a massive figure with charcoal-black skin, piercing white eyes, and a pair of ram's horns atop their head. Kosef took one look at them and was immediately bewildered. The only times he'd seen or heard of people that look like that were in myths and fairytales he'd read over the years, stories that talked about fantastic kingdoms hidden out of sight, and the mystical fairy folk that dwelled there. Were they one of those fairy folk he'd heard about?

Catney walked back into the diner with her coat thrown over her shoulders, hiding her arms from view as she glanced around the room anxiously. She was suprised when she spotted the kid they'd almost ran over out in the hallways just a few minutes ago. "Hey, kid, do you know where the other guy went?" The boy just stupidly stared at her as she waited for a response, wondering why it was taking so long for a neuron to fire somewhere in this half-pint's brain. "The guy who runs this place, short-stack? Do - you - know - where - he - is?" The boy weakly raised his arm up and pointed at the door behind the bar. Catney nodded in reply as she stumbled up to a barstool and shouted for Tom. "Hey! You got any more of that ammo with ya?!"

Tom came stumbling out the door confusedly after hearing Catney yelling for his attention. "There you are! Was wondering where you'd disappeared off to." Before continuing, he passed by the booth to hand Kosef the glass of Almond Water, setting a small glass of milk on the table to feed Millicent later. Catney hadn't noticed Millicent when she entered the diner, glancing at the newborn out of curiosity before Tom brought her attention back. "So why do you need more ammo? You run out already somehow?"

With that, Catney reached a hand out from under her coat to pull it off and toss it aside, revealing her other arm to have pulled a vanishing act. Tom looked in shock as Catney raised the stump dangling from her left side, the arm having been severed just above the elbow, leaving only a brachium covered in a tattered sleeve and doused in a sickly-gray fluid. Penumbra blood. Her blood.

"Yeah… that's kind of a long story…"

A few minutes earlier, on the same level…

Catney's feet nearly left skid marks in the musty carpet as she and Tom came grinding to a halt, nearly crashing into the tiny figure standing before them. Looking down at the person in question, Catney saw a small human with dark brown hair, carrying a bundle of bloody cloth and clenching his eyes shut as if anticipating the already prevented collision. Tom stared confused and worried at the figure before them, but Catney was more passively intrigued by their appearance. Why were they so short? Was this one of those ape-folk children she'd heard about back home?

Something pulled her attention away from the matter at hand, some sound echoing down the halls towards her. She could’ve sworn she heard it, but wasn’t entirely sure. Quickly she ducked around the corner and took off down another hallway, trying to move in the direction the sound came from. Hopefully if she was close enough, she could discern just what had stood out so well amongst the almost overwhelming noise of panic all around them.

Seconds later, she stopped and heard it echo forth again. From just a little ways away, likely only a turn around a corner or two, she heard a noise that was hard to simplistically put into words. It began with a low growling sound, lasting for only a moment before quickly rising in volume to become a single, booming note, droning for several seconds before climbing back down in volume and slowly fading away into nothingness once again. She knew that ape-folk were harshly unfamiliar with the sound in question, often comparing it to a strange mix of several sounds from their homeworld. The cry of a feral wolf, the boom of a tornado siren, the scream of a terrified child. To the humans it sounded like some terrible mixture of all these wretched sounds, but Catney knew exactly what it was.

Somewhere, just a few hundred feet away, she could hear a Penumbra howling.

As fast as she could, Catney raced down the hallways towards the source of the cry. With each step the noise grew louder, the unknown Penumbra responsible letting out howl after howl every few seconds. What was wrong? What was happening just a corridor or two away that could warrant such a need for noise? Were they fighting something? Turning another corner, Catney finally saw the figure responsible, and just what situation they were in.

Standing just a few feet away was a hornless Penumbra dressed in a dark blue gambeson, their back turned to her as they faced down a trio of Cartographer scouts. Arching their back as they let out another howl, Catney could see they were armed with only a rusty shortsword, as one of the scouts reached into their backpack to procure a suspicious bag made of black and cyan cloth. Catney was worried about just what might have been inside, having a pretty sure guess as to the pouch's contents.

The moment one of the other scouts procured a vial of blue powder, Catney had all the confirmation she needed, as she quickly drew her firesalt pistol and immediately landed a bullet between one of the scout's eyes.

Just as soon as she fired the first shot, one of the two remaining scouts was ready to fire back, aiming a flintlock rifle directly at her chest. The shortsword-wielding Penumbra turned to see Catney standing behind them, a suprised look on their face for a short moment before quickly turning back and charging at the scouts. Catney felt a sharp pain explode forth just below her shoulder as the other Penumbra barely managed to reach the shooter in time, throwing off their aim and preventing a coma-inducing wound.

Without a moment to lose, Catney emptied the rest of her pistol's ammo upon the third Cartographer, as the other Penumbra slammed their sword down on the second's neck, letting out one last howl of victory as the scout slowly sputtered and died. Once they were sure all the scouts were dead, the unknown Penumbra climbed to their feet and stared back at Catney, revealing a tired gray face framed by a wild mane of dreadlocks, their slit-open mouth already starting to regenerate.

Catney recognized that face.

"Rornes? What in the Architect's name are you doing out here?!"

Tom's attention was pried away from Catney's stump of an arm by a knock at the diner's front door. Catney bolted up from the bar and ran to the entrance, cracking the door open to talk to the person on the other side. "You better come on inside Rornes, I don't think we'll be heading back out into that chaos just yet." With that, the door swung open to reveal the hornless Penumbra, his shortsword clenched tightly in his hand as he stepped into the diner.

"You two friends or something?" Tom was starting to think this day wouldn't stop getting weirder and weirder. Kosef went to take a drink from the glass of Almond Water that Tom handed him earlier, only to spit it back up in disgust. Tom couldn't help but laugh at Kosef's reaction. "Heh, you better get used to the stuff. Gonna be drinking a lot more of that in the future." Kosef looked disappointed as he reluctantly went to take another sip, this time struggling to swallow it down rather than spit it up again.

Rornes stared at the two children with a look of confusion on his face. "I'm not quite sure what to make of these, um…" He started snapping his fingers repeatedly, struggling to remember something. "Catney, help me out. What's the correct phrase again? Human,,, Larvae?" Tom raised an eyebrow at Rornes' strange remark, while Catney buried her suprised face in her good arm, failing to hide her embarrassment. Quickly she grabbed Rornes by the collar of his gambeson and yanked his head down next to hers, whispering something in his ear before he sprang back upright. "Children! Sorry! I meant human children!" Catney sighed as she once again hid her face in her hand, dissappointed by her colleague.

Kosef was too busy to notice the weird names the Penumbras were calling him, trying ever so carefully to feed Millicent some of the milk Tom had poured for her earlier. Every now and then he would glance over quickly at the two to try and examine them, get an idea of what they look like. These people seemed ethereal, ancient, almost magical. The only things Kosef knew of that came anywhere close to these beings were the faeries he'd read about in his books. Creatures that lived in secrecy, whose beauty and strength surpassed that of humans in more ways than one. Whoever these two were, they fit the stories almost perfectly.

"You gonna keep staring at us, kid, or are you gonna speak up?" Catney teased Kosef for his constant glances shot in her direction. The human was obviously curious as to what she and Rornes were, which was understandable, given he hadn't even been in the Backrooms for a full hour yet. She turned her attention back to Tom, who was still waiting for an answer to his earlier question. "Yeah, me and Rornes grew up together. Left the Mortis Machina side-by-side, spent most of our lives up in Alost after that, and so on… We're basically thick as thieves." Rornes nodded the entire way through his apparent partner-in-crime's reply.

Tom just started to look more confused at this. "What the hell is Alost? Sounds like one of the kingdoms you folks dwell in." Rornes and Catney nodded in reply, but this only heightened Tom's suspicion. "Didn't you say earlier that you had no kingdom?" Tom had met dozens of Penumbras before in his life, and every last one took pride in whatever homeland they belogned to. Catney was an exception, and one that didn't make any sense.

Catney was visibly startled by Tom's line of questioning, flustering herself as she struggled to give a straight answer. Rornes looked at her with a suspicious gaze. He knew something was up. "Catney, I think you'd better start explaining." Catney was starting to shrink into one of the chairs at the counter, trying her best to act unfazed. "I want to know why I found you all the way out here, hundreds of Levels away from the Capital, now apparently claiming you're a vagrant?"

Kosef turned to stare at the Penumbras again, finally working up the courage to start asking questions. "What's a vagrant?"

"It's a Penumbra with no kingdom," Rornes responded, "Usually for a damn good reason…" His gaze was fixed squarely on Catney, who was trying to discreetly redirect the attention by focusing on her severed arm, fidgeting with it as it slowly began to regenerate. "Catney, why would you lie about that kind of thing? Why did you flee Alost?"

Before Rornes could get an answer, there was a knock on the diner's front doors. Kosef stared out the window nearby, watching something around the corner march up to the diner, just outside the sight of Tom and the Penumbras. A voice soon followed the knocking, echoing from outside the establishment. "Hello in there? We would like to speak to the owner of this eatery at once." Kosef let out a yelp and stumbled back from the window as a figure stepped up to the other side of the glass pane, peering in at the diner's inhabitants. It was a figure dressed in a purple hood and coat, their face concealed by a black bandana and pair of goggles as they brandished a flintlock rifle, tapping the firearm's bayonet against the window.

Catney and Rornes quickly sprang to their feet, drawing their weapons and training them on the door. Rornes was clearly fumed, raising a hand up to his head and digging his fingernails into the corner of his face. "How in Architect's name did they follow us?!" He boomed, his voice growing louder and rougher as the mouth he carved into his face grew in size. Catney had nothing to say on the matter, letting out a barely audible sigh as if she was relieved by the shift of attention.

The knocking on the door increased in volume. "Open up in there! We can hear those damned Wraiths you've got hidden away inside here!" Rornes scoffed at the mention of 'Wraiths', grabbing hold of his jaw and manually unhinging it to further tear his makeshift mouth wide open. "Under the authority of her majesty, Queen Heulwen Pretoria II, we demand you surrender those two Entities immediately! You are harboring vile killers responsible for the deaths of our brothers-in-arms!"

Tom glanced at the two Penumbras with a look of annoyance plastered across his face. "You two better have a good explanation for this." The Cartographer scouts were wailing on the door at this point, practically trying to break it down with their fists. "First rule when dealing with the Republic: Never poke the purple beehive."

"By order of the Queen, open this door!"

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