Midgame: Part 1
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How many more times were they going to slip in and out of consciousness? That was the only thing on their mind right now. They must’ve been lying on those gray tiles for days at this point or at least that was what they thought. There was no real way to tell the time in this shithole anyway.

All Alyk could do was watch the scenery around them and feel the bruises and the wounds on their body bringing them closer and closer to death.
Between the warm, damp air and all the cracked ribs, it was getting harder and harder to breathe. Well, not exactly harder, but surely more painful and annoying. So much so that it made them wish for their breathing to stop, even if it meant being killed in god knows what way by some bloodthirsty Entity.

Truth was, they’d had enough. Alyk had their shot at life and they were nothing but a dead weight. Maybe they’ll be a winner in their next reincarnation.
They lied there, waiting for the noises they’ve heard all this time to finally make their way to them and give them some closure, but, before that could happen, the world around them started getting hazier and hazier until it eventually faded to black.

—-

The next time Alyk opened the only eye they could still see from, it felt like a thousand needles had suddenly pierced their skin. Something humanoid was crouching in front of them, as if inspecting them. Maybe the end they yearned for had finally come?
However, before one of Alyk’s trains of thought could start, a loud slurping noise brought them back to reality. As their vision got less and less blurry, they finally noticed the thing crouching in front of them was a human, noisily drinking from a bottle with a plastic straw and shining a flashlight right on their face.

“Holy fuck, peep, what’s with your eye?”

The man talked in a soft-spoken but staggeringly informal voice, interrupting himself every few seconds with another loud slurp.
Alyk couldn’t help but notice he seemed to be sucking in more air than whatever liquid was in that bottle.

“You might wanna get that checked, lol.”

The shit eating grin on the stranger’s face and the fact that he literally just said “lol” in a real life conversation were almost enough to distract them from the big metal bat resting on his shoulders.
Their mouth was almost completely dry and just moving it to talk felt like it was going to drain them of all energy, but, through great effort, Alyk still managed to spit out a single word.

“What.”

“Oh, so you heard me! Good, good! It means you’re still alive!”

They blankly stared at him while he took one last slurp from the bottle before tossing it down the hallway. Alyk was definitely not a fan of how his grin got even wider.

“That might change soon if that eye gets infected, though. There’s a M.E.G. base ‘round these parts, how ‘bout I leave you some food and water and go call for help there, huh?”

All they could do was stare at him, as they felt themself slowly drift back into unconsciousness, but the all too familiar darkness that preceded unconsciousness was chased away by a light sting on their cheeks. The stranger was flicking his fingers against their face.

“Hey, hey, don’t pass out on me!”

“Are you… for real…?”

“As real as it gets, peep. Doesn’t look like I can leave you here alone, though, or you’ll be Hound food in no time. Bummer.”

After a few seconds of tapping his chin, the stranger erupted into a hearty laughter.

“Guess you’ll have to tag along, then! Can you walk? Well, you probably can’t or you wouldn’t be lying here now, would you? Guess that means I’ll have to keep you company until you recover, then! Don’t worry, I have food and water to spare. Oh, and some bandages, though I doubt they’re gonna help with… that.” he concluded, awkwardly gesturing towards Alyk’s left eye.

“But first!”

Alyk internally panicked as their mysterious interlocutor grabbed them by their armpits and lifted them until they were sitting up with their back against the brown bricks that made up this Level’s walls. Just who was this guy? If their legs were still capable of running they would’ve been long gone, probably rushing through the dark hallways just to curse their own stupidity for immediately getting lost.

“There we go. Bet you’re feeling better already now that your blood isn’t all going to your head! Now if you let me just…”

He rummaged through his backpack and pulled out a piece of cloth and a bottle of nondescript liquid. After ripping the cloth in two halves, he rolled one into a cylindrical shape.

“Say aaaah…”

Too tired to ask questions, Alyk obeyed and opened their mouth, while he delicately put the cloth roll in it. As he poured the liquid on the second piece of cloth, the reason for all of this dawned on them.
The soaked cloth felt like liquid fire rapidly seeping into their eye socket and then into their brain. Even screaming like a banshee and biting down on the cloth in their mouth as hard as they possibly could only slightly distracted them from the burning feeling. Tears streamed down from their other eye, but they could finally feel the adrenaline kicking in, dulling the pain and keeping them awake.

“Good job, you took it like a champ!” he said chuckling.

Only now that they saw how much blood was on the soaked cloth Alyk realized how deep the wound really was. Are they going to lose their eye? They knew they’d look like the world’s lamest pirate with an eyepatch.
As he bandaged the wound, they spat out the cloth and finally managed to speak to him again.

“Why are you doing this…?”

“Because I hope it’ll stop the bleeding, duh.”

“That’s not… what I mean…”

“Well, I’m not a saint who goes around saving random people so… let’s just say I’m doing it so you’ll be indebted to me”

“What if I… just… ran away?”

“In this state? I doubt it. Plus, you look like a good kid, you’d never do that to me, right?”

Another laughter echoed through the hallway. Somehow, their savior’s cheerful demeanor in such a dire situation only added to his unsettlingness.

“Anyway, what’s your name, kid? Gonna need it since it looks like we’re gonna be together for a while.”

“Alyk.”

“Oh, that’s a weird one. I mean, no offense”

“Who are you?”

“That’s a hard question to an- Oh, you probably mean my name.”

He stood pensive, his gaze lost in the distance despite the fact that the only thing in front of him was a wall.

“To be quite honest, I forgot. My tgochi username is IronSoul so you can call me Iron or Soul or whatever sounds the coolest to- Oh wait, that reminds me! I may or may not have gone through your stuff while you were ‘asleep’ and I noticed you were a player too!”

His grin now turned into an expression of interest. Alyk couldn't tell what kind of interest, though. The Backrooms are full of nutcases, all they had to do was figure out what kind of nutcase he was and act accordingly.

“And a pretty damn good one, too… you have all your achievements completed except for one… which is pretty impressive for someone without Merch, honestly!”

Merch? Was that guy serious? Evevryone knew that was just a legend, there was no way this guy actually believed in it. Sure, the idea of giving objects with miraculous properties to the best players would have been a cool addition to tgochi but there was no such thing as a player leaderboard, so how would that even work?
But, after all, they were taking this from a guy who constantly laughed at nothing and didn’t remember his own name, so no surprise there.

—-

During the conversation, Alyk could feel their mind was finally beginning to work at full capacity again. They always considered themself a rational person, so they approached the situation rationally and made use of this moment of newfound clarity to take a good look at Soul.

At a first glance he looked like an average young man in his early-to-mid twenties, but something was off about him.
Despite his completely normal appearance, he barely seemed human. His smug smile radiated some kind of energy and his amber eyes pierced right through Alyk’s skull, as if trying to take a look directly inside their mind. His clothing, unlike Alyk’s, was completely clean and intact, save for a few drops of their blood on the sleeve of his black hoodie. Compared to the dark environment around him, he felt so out of place that it was like he walked into here from some other dimension and, knowing this place, Alyk knew they couldn’t rule out the possibility entirely.
When they looked at him, they couldn't help but think of the Mediterranean trickster gods whose stories they loved to read as a kid. He looked just like them, save for his almost pale complexion.

—-

“Hey, you still there? Don’t die on me, peep.”

“Huh. No, no I’m here…” they blurted out.

“As I was saying, your achievements are pretty impressive, how did you manage to do that?”

Alyk snorted, irritated. They really didn’t want to talk about it, but, of course, Soul looked like he had no intention to stop prying into his business, so there weren't many alternatives.
“I didn’t do shit… I was carried…”

Soul kept staring at Alyk, but this time his usual smile had turned into a different look, like the one a confused dog gives you.

“Carried? By whom?”

“A group of players. We called ourselves the Rats. Our leader was… obsessed with the game, so we decided to play it.”

They almost chuckled, but a sharp pain in the chest cut their laughter short.
“I mean, we had no objectives other than… petty theft and robbing some unlucky souls of the few things they had… so we figured why not play it in our spare time?”

Soul raised an eyebrow.
“So you did all of this in your spare time? Hate to be this blunt, peep, but that’s pretty hard to believe.”

“Of course we didn’t, let me finish."

If Alyk had to make a list of things they hated, people who interrupt them would probably be in the top 5.
"Well, we got hooked on the stuff and started playing it for real and… our leader was a real genius… he found ways to work around every requirement for every achievement… but then… we were gathering electronics in Level 13 for the TSR when…”

Alyk paused. All this talking was taking a heavy toll on their shattered rib cage as well as on their mind.
“Oh, c’mon, peep, you can’t leave me hanging like this!” Soul pleaded “What happened then?”

Alyk avoided his gaze, despite the fact Soul was noticeably emotionally involved in the story already.
“I’m tired.”

“Whaaat? I mean, I know talking probably hurts or something, but are you really—”

Alyk snapped.
“I said I’m fucking tired!”

Their outburst succeeded in leaving Soul wide-eyed and speechless, but that came at the cost of their chest pain getting much, much worse.

“I’m going to sleep” they gasped with the last of the air in their lungs.

Soul shrugged and started messing around with his phone.
“A’ight, I’ll be keeping guard then. Oh, almost forgot to tell you, but I fed your pet while you were out cold. You’re welcome.”

If Soul was expecting a ‘thank you’ then he was sorely mistaken. Alyk was already sick and tired of his endless idle chatter.

—-

They tried to find the most comfortable position they could but, as it turned out, no position is that comfy when your bones feel like they just went through a blender. At that rate there was no way they’d get some shut-eye, which was pretty ironic considering how they were struggling to stay conscious until just a few minutes ago. The pain of disinfecting the eye wound had filled their blood with adrenaline and the darkness of the tunnels certainly didn’t help in making them feel at ease.

Despite the heavy, warm air and the noise of the machinery, along with all the other pleasantries of Level 3, Soul was tending to his tgochi pet like it was the most normal thing in the world, not paying attention to his surroundings. Not exactly ideal when keeping guard.
“Thank god he’s here, huh…” Alyk thought to themself sarcastically.
If there was one thing they hated, it was not being able to fall asleep right away. Sitting still with their eyes shut, waiting for sleep to come, was unbelievably boring and always felt like a waste of time to them. Irritated by their own inability to fall asleep and by Soul’s… everything, they just closed their eye and tried to think of nothing for as long as they could until it eventually worked.

—-

Muffled whispers pierced the veil between Alyk’s dreams and cold, harsh reality. They were still in those tunnels, their body still felt like it had been ground to a paste and all. Still, the tunnels felt slightly darker than how they remembered them. Scratch that, it was quite literally pitch black, with the only somewhat visible area extending just a few inches past the tip of their nose.

A tug on their sleeve awoke them completely. At their right, sat Soul, with his smile not quite gone but reduced so much that, in the darkness, one could have mistaken him for a normal person.
With one hand, he was pointing towards one end of the tunnel, but even though Alyk’s eyes were completely accustomed to the darkness by then, they could still see nothing in the direction he was pointing at.

With his other hand he was gesturing at Alyk to stay silent, but, before they could ask why, gurgling sounds made their blood run cold.
Soul grabbed his bat from the floor and lit up the hallway with his phone’s flashlight. Alyk wished they didn't know what they were looking at, but they knew it far too well.

Its red skin looked like it had been melted off their body and then solidified again, even exposing its bones in some spots. Crooked teeth grew out of its mouth in varying shades of yellow, perfectly in tone with the sclerae of its eyes, rolling back and forth restlessly in its eye sockets. That was perhaps the most obvious Wretch Alyk had ever seen.

They frantically tried to stand up, but, before their aches and pains could stop them, Soul did, tightly gripping their shoulder.
He slowly stood up with the bat in his hand and started walking towards the Wretch, which, meanwhile, brought the pitch of its “speech” from a low gurgle to a high-pitched screeching.

“What are you doing?! Are you insane?!” they whisper-screamed at him.

The only response they got was him slightly raising his hand without even bothering to turn around.

The creature charged at him. It attacked him with an incredibly quick swipe of its arm, but, even more quickly, Soul parried it with his bat.
From the way he read its moves, Alyk could immediately tell he was experienced in fighting Wretches, but the pitch of its vocalization gave it away immediately: this was no ordinary Wretch.

The Wretch attacked again and again, wildly flailing its limbs at him with loud thuds every time its flesh met the hard steel of Soul’s bat. All he was doing was blocking its blows over and over again, while the screaming Wretch kept pushing him back towards Alyk with the might of its attacks.
Alyk could do nothing but stare, horrified, at Soul, who was clearly looking like he was struggling to them. After another parried blow, Soul mumbled something to himself.

The Wretch attacked once again, but this time, instead of parrying, Soul stepped backwards to dodge its swipe. Before the Entity could regain its balance, he lunged forward and retaliated by striking the Wretch right in its face.
As soon as the bat hit the creature, an incredibly bright flash of blue light tore the darkness apart and blinded Alyk.

“What the fu-?! Soul?! Are you there?! What happened?!”

A sigh of relief could be heard in response.
“Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of, peep. You okay?”

Alyk’s eye could finally start to see again when Soul turned on his flashlight and pointed it at the Wretch.

It was lying motionless on the grey tiles, his head completely missing, like it had been ripped off. Behind the corpse, the brickwall had changed color from its usual dark brown to crimson red for several feet. Pieces of bones and brains were scattered everywhere on the floor.

“What a mess, huh? Well, I guess it’s not safe here for you, sooooo we should really head to Base Gamma.”

Soul’s signature smile was once again stamped on his face.
“How do you wanna be carried? Piggyback or princess?” he chuckled.
Alyk still couldn’t believe what they saw. Was it even possible to blow a Wretch’s head clean off its shoulders with a single blow? Who the hell was that guy?

“What the… what the fuck was that…” they gasped out, still feeling like their heart had jumped straight from their chest into their throat.

“Well, this is the power of Merch for you, I guess.”

Another hearty laughter filled the tunnels, as Alyk noticed for the first time that, among the blood stains and the grey matter splattered on the bat, there was a phrase engraved on it: “Guaranteed home run!”
Guess he wasn’t nuts after all… well, at least not completely.

“Anyway, you still need to answer my question, you know?”

“Huh?”

“Piggyback or princess?”

Alyk sighed. They were definitely not looking forward to being carried by Soul.
“Piggyback, I fuckin' guess.”

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