Not A Soul Responded
rating: +10+x

Finding Paradise

I met him at a bar.
There he stood.
I asked their name.
Not A Soul Responded

In my slight stupor, I stared at all of the people in the caravans preparing off to the side of where we had entered. They seemed quite orderly, contrasting to the copious amounts of junk they all piled onto their carts and bags to vend and carry. I was lost in thought then and there, slowly realizing that Sam and Olivia were starting to move again. With that, I shook my head to shake myself free of the confusion, following them yet again.

“This doesn’t look all that different from Level 0 if I’m being honest,” I called to the two as I hurried to catch up to them. Although I couldn’t be too sure I wouldn’t come across danger here, I was still wary of the unknown.

“I will admit, the two are similar. There’s also more present dangers here to be aware of.” Sam commented in response. Overall though, he and Olivia also slowed down so I could catch up.

Of course, I went right to questioning what could be around that posed a threat to us. With my brow furrowed, I asked, “Are you going to elaborate on those? I don’t want to repeat that incident from the town again.”

“To be fair, I didn’t think skin-stealers would’ve taken it over. Level 0 is meant to be almost completely safe. I think it might be the first time I’ve seen a complex threat there.”

“You can never be too sure though, Sam. Just tell the boy about the entities we should be cautious of.” Olivia said in a tone of voice that almost felt like scolding.

“Ah fine, I was getting there though, you know… I also hope you’re not scared of dogs, kid.”

“…there’s dogs?”

“Sort of?” Sam replied, looking around as we departed the large and empty office space which we entered initially. “They’re man-dogs, I guess. Head and skin of a man, but all beastly and… wrong.”

My brow furrowed again, not quite believing or comprehending the description at all. If he wanted to say that there were some kind of feral people around, I don’t understand why he didn’t just say that.

“So are they just people who act like dogs?”

“No no, dogs that look like people- You’ll get it if we ever see one.” He vaguely replied.

“Just imagine a mix between the two. It has human skin and the head of a person.” Olivia added, basically repeating what Sam had said earlier.

I responded with a nod as an attempt to show that I partly understood, at least. Even if I still didn’t get an explanation that was probably very blunt, I just rolled with it to end the conversation then and there. From then on, I began to keep track of my surroundings a bit more.

The next room we had entered was a host for another active settlement of sorts. A few proper tent shelters and people who seemed to be doing business with some of the passing merchants. An ecosystem seemed to exist here, one that seemed to revolve entirely around the moving traders and the supplies they seemed to need. Just like the hub before we entered, there were tons of hawkers with their miscellaneous wares laid out.

Everyone including ourselves couldn’t help but look over the random pieces of gear and items being sold. It was hard to avoid the sellers with how they were positioned, creating artificial corridors and walkways to the different exits out of the room. This thankfully opened up in the middle, making a crossroads where the flow of people was pushed in three directions. We could either go right, seemingly towards another room that appeared to be filled with more people and more advanced shelters, or the left, where most of the outbound caravans and traveling people went.

Sam turned to look at me and Oliva, crossing his arms. “So, we have two options… Jo here has some canned food that’ll last us for a good while, but we can still go toward Base Omega for some extra gear. That, or we can continue and save time so we can reach our next level sooner. Your choice.”

Olivia gave a look of thought, directing her focus to me, just as Sam was doing. I looked nervously at them both, scratching and rubbing my shoulder a little from the rugburn I experienced when Sam had dragged me from danger earlier.

“You both are going to ask me? You’re the two on the special missions, I’m just along to help…”

“But you’re also the one who brought a bag,” Sam remarked, although Olivia chimed in.

“Well, a bag that can fit more than mine. I have all my medical supplies in this one…”

“Either way, Jo is gonna be the one carrying our extra stuff around. They might as well make the choice.”

“Alright Sam, I’ll let them decide…” Olivia stated, soon turning her attention back to me.

The pair gave me a look of expectation as I weighed my options. I turned my bag back to my front, starting to check how much space and food I had remaining. My blanket took up a little more space than I would’ve liked, but I could still possibly make room for a little more. After all, I didn’t know how much food or drinks we’d be going through.

“It probably wouldn’t hurt to get a little more supplies. Is there anything specific we would need?… You two would probably know better than me.”

Sam thought about my question for a moment, thinking of a reply. Olivia and him seemed alright with it though, giving a nod of understanding, so it seemed.

“With the route we’re going to take, I know just what we’ll need. I have some connections here, I can get us some stuff for some good trades.”

The mention of connections sounded a little familiar to me, just like what happened back at the outpost on Level 0. “No monsters this time around though, right?” I said, only as a tease.

Sam laughed it off dismissively, choosing to take the lead. Together we passed through the wide doorframe, making room for the caravans to also pass by us. Unlike the previous settlement we had been to on Level 0, this one was far more developed than the trading post. The aforementioned shelters people lived in were made of proper materials–brick and wood–whatever they could find to structure what seemed like proper homes and buildings that served whatever purposes the organizers of the settlement desired.

Other than the normal people and traders that were around the traditional style of gridded streets were people who almost resembled some kind of plainclothes officers. They stood at every other corner, each one turning their head to observe us as we passed by. The only way I could get a hint at their importance was the sashes they wore. Everyone aside from me seemed to be indifferent to them, although I couldn’t help but feel as though I was being surveyed no matter where I was going with the group.

I looked ahead to Sam, checking on where he seemed to be taking us. This place was merely an office space after all, so what could people have possibly constructed here aside from maybe shelters or the occasional storage room? Anything else seemed a bit frivolous given the circumstances. Since Sam mentioned grabbing supplies, I imagined that we were going to some kind of store.

It wasn’t long before we arrived at where Sam intended to get us supplies. A proper brick structure featuring a well-crafted wood sign. It simply read, “general goods” on it, indicating very little about what could’ve been inside. Nonetheless, I was pretty hopeful, even if another one of those sashed watchmen stood right by the door. Inside was just as sturdy, even featuring shelves to hold items that were available for sale. Olivia seemed a little surprised by the variety of things, whispering to Sam loud enough for me to also hear.

“I’m going to check around on my own for things I might require… Why don’t you go with Jo to help pick things out.” Remarked Olivia, starting to go on her own without any confirmation or denial.

Despite this, Sam still led me toward one of the aisles directly in front of us. It seemed to have a consistent theme at least, featuring multiple canned and boxed foods. A lot of it seemed pretty vague and mismatched, more like I was searching through a pantry of mismatched and pretty generic or nonsensical packaging. Although most of it was clearly food, something about some of the images and words on the packaging felt off to me. Almost like they were yet another creation of the levels.

“Don’t worry too much about trading for some of these, I have some stuff I can pitch in to help.” He commented, picking out one of the random boxes with surreal packaging.

“Can I ask how the people running this store get all of these things? It feels like I’m looking through a thrift store.”

“Ah, well you sort of are? The M.E.G. sends scavengers to collect things, and they accept donations from the more populated levels. That includes stuff like this.” Sam informed me, picking out a pot which he casually inspected for a second. “Unfortunately they still make you pay for basically everything.”

I shrugged it off somewhat, deciding to pick through two or three cans of random food. Sam seemed to be doing something pretty similar, grabbing two larger boxes of food. It seemed to consist of multiple boxes bundled together with some plastic wrap, almost like a bundle of meals.

“These things are worth it though. Don’t worry about picking out all those cans, these pre-packaged rations can feed the three of us for a day. We should save our space for some gear too.”

After Sam made his remark about the boxed meals, I second-guessed my decision. We didn’t just come for food, and if Level 0 were anything to go off of, things would only get more treacherous from here on out. With the advice, and knowing I would eventually have to trade for all of this stuff, I began to put the canned foods away. After all, I still had one or two cans myself. Soon I began to move on, looking to Sam for guidance on what we’d need.

The two of us passed through the aisles of miscellaneous items stocked on the shelves. Yet again I also noticed one of the people with the sashes watching and patrolling, stopping us suddenly.

“Mind handing over your bag?” They suddenly questioned, speaking more as if it were a demand.

I raised my eyebrow with a little bit of offense. I assumed they were just trying to make sure I didn’t try to steal anything, though I complied.

“Don’t worry sir, all we’re carrying with us is in my hands.” Sam told them in an attempt to defuse the situation, though the man with the sash gave him a look of sneaking suspicion, checking the inside of my bag.

“Canned goods… some kind of fabric sheet… Are you two traveling somewhere?”

“Yep, we’ve just stopped here to grab some food and snorkels.”

“Snorkles… going to Level 7, are you? Tch, if you have a death wish…”

Sam and the inquisitive officer continued to converse, although the fact that we were going to another dangerous place didn’t leave my mind. The faint rumble of thunder in the distance soon brought me out of the worried mindset I found myself in during that brief moment. Sam had moved towards a nearby shelf with the man wearing the sash, picking out some snorkeling masks. I hurried over, mostly wanting to get my bag back.

“These should do… thanks, officer.” Sam remarked as he took the masks, putting the boxed meals under his arm to hold them.

“Ah, and I couldn’t forget this young lad’s bag, can I?” I was told by the same man as he offered my bag back to me.

As peeved as I was about people assuming me to be younger than I was, I took it back, slinging it back over my shoulder. “Thanks, mister. I’m an adult, though.”

“Ah, you aren’t this man’s son or something?”

Sam laughed at the idea, shaking his head a little bit. “Nope, just a guy who volunteered to come and help.”

The man laughed it off, deciding to return to patrolling after he had checked out what it was we were doing. Afterward, I continued to keep my eye on them, losing track of them as Sam led me through another aisle of shelves.

“Seems like some tight security they have here…” I sarcastically said to Sam, hoping I was quiet enough not to be overheard.

“Well, they’re just The M.E.G.’s security. Most of them are compensated workers… They take their jobs seriously.”

“Is that why they watch us like hawks?”

“That’s the root of it. I almost became one given my background in law enforcement but… they value the number of people they stop over the quality of the cases.”

“Sounds just a little corrupt to me. Guess it’s good you didn’t pick that profession?” I questioned. However, Sam went quiet, looking at the ground a little as our walking slowed. He shrugged eventually, though it wasn’t done with much energy.

“Arguably, my work back home wasn’t any better. The police aren’t perfect, you know.”

“And I imagine you figured that out firsthand as a detective? You don’t have to talk about it if it brings back some bad memories?”

“Right… right… Thanks Jo, let’s just find Olivia and pay for this stuff.” He replied in a little mutter, clearing his throat a bit before we continued.

Olivia wasn’t very far, being right at the corner of another shelf, meticulously checking over the medicines and natural remedies that the store had in stock. She seemed pretty enthralled by the variety, already having picked out two plastic bottles which she held in one hand, using the other to point at the labels she was reading. Thankfully, she wasn’t too distracted to where she didn’t notice us.

“Ah, are you both done grabbing supplies? I was just picking some medicine out. It’ll hopefully help if any of us get hurt again…” Olivia asked, wrapping up her search for medicine.

I nodded a little, checking her bandaged bite with a small glance. “And yourself? Is that bite healing okay?”

“Mhm! I’m a resilient woman. Let’s just purchase all our stuff so we can get going again!” She said with a good deal of eager excitement in her grinning smile, hurrying to the sets of counters so we could trade.

* * *

Trading for the gear wasn’t too expensive for us, thankfully. Sam thankfully managed to use his silver tongue to haggle and get us a pretty decent deal. Olivia also agreed to pitch in some rare herbs she had gathered to match the appropriate value. Although the shopkeep was a little apprehensive, Sam’s offer of a few batteries seemed like more than enough to convince them. With that, I packed away the boxes of meals and the snorkels, heading out with the others.

We began to go the opposite way at the intersection we first found ourselves at, beginning to gradually leave the miniature metropolis of the outpost. The evidence of civilization didn’t quite leave us, however. A series of other rooms packed with refuse and waste was through yet another windowed office space which appeared to have planters of some kind. The carpet and white walls of the office space had now become stained with the years and years of waste packed down, and everything stank of rot and bodily waste.

I heard Olivia audibly gag at the stench, just as I was. I was almost baffled that they hadn’t figured out a way to properly deal with the waste like we did on Level 11, but I suppose things out here couldn’t be all that easy. The least they could’ve done was burn it, though it wasn’t like there was anywhere for the smoke from that to go.

“Just hold your breath… We’ll have to trudge through this. Right there.” Sam told the both of us, gesturing to a doorway that barely stuck out from the mounds of garbage.

Olivia sighed, shaking her head in a bit of objection. “You couldn’t have picked an easier route,” she questioned, “this is just disgusting.”

“Listen doll, I would’ve if I knew a better way to Level 7, but just trust me… this is the most straightforward path. A bit of trash ain’t gonna hurt you.”

I shrugged at the fact somewhat, knowing that I could only really agree with the statement. It wasn’t all that bad at least. Things were mostly kept in bags, and as he had stated, it wasn’t like the trash was going to kill us. I chose to lead and take a few steps onto the piles of junk. As gross as it was, I did as Sam instructed, holding my breath as I took a few steps. The loose items and bags shifted under the weight of my footsteps, creating a few squishing and crunching sounds.

Whilst I waded, I reached my hands out to hold the loose bags and items for support, dragging my feet carefully through the junk piles. For a moment I paused, but only to look back at the others. Sam had gone right after, trailed closely by Olivia who followed in our footsteps. She seemed to have a harder time keeping her balance, trying to make sure her bag and shortsword didn’t get caught on anything. In the end, she ended up reaching to grab Sam’s shoulder, holding on so she could be guided easily.

Once the pair had made more progress, I pressed forward to make more room for them. The stench became a little less overbearing, and the bags of garbage we stepped on seemed a lot weaker from time rotting them away. My foot was briefly caught on something, although I managed to get it unstuck with some effort.

“Careful you two. I think there’s some metal and shit that I almost got hurt by…” I warned, playing it up a little just in case they weren’t already cautious enough.

I couldn’t tell if they had both heard me through the looks of focus on their faces, though I simply carried on, having to crawl a little bit to finally reach the doorway to the next room. I staggered and nearly fell as I came to the other room, catching myself on the few discarded items that spilled over into the other rooms. The putrid smell still permeated, though now I also caught wind of something else foul. A stench of something that was metallic and wet, almost like a mix of eggs and sweat. It almost brought me back to memories of my life in the real world, recalling the awful smell of dirty mops from my old job.

This office space seemed to be in a state of disrepair. The carpet was a bit stained and some of the walls had decently sized holes right at floor level. I could’ve crawled through them if I wanted, though I assumed Sam had better ideas. After all, there were a few perfectly usable doorways.

Both Oliva and Sam soon came tumbling out from the seas of trash, knocking over a bag or two as they stumbled in. Thankfully, they both seemed pretty unharmed.

“Well look at that, we’re alive… Told you the trash wouldn’t kill us, but now we’re near stuff that will…”

“Ah, it still reeks here Sam! Please tell me we don’t have to go that far…”

“Olivia relax… keep that sword out too, the hounds might be about…”

I raised an eyebrow at the comment, looking back to the holes in the walls. Now that they mentioned the hounds again, I started to realize what these holes were probably made by. I gave a nervous gulp, reaching into my bag for the knife that I thankfully still had.

“I’m sure you two know how to deal with them better than me. Lead on…” I commented, holding the knife with weary caution.

“Indeed. You’re with a veteran… Well, maybe two? I don’t reckon you’re as green as Jo, are ya Olivia?”

Olivia sighed and drew her sword before replying. “No, let’s just hurry before they figure out that dinner might be here.”

Nodding in agreement, Sam began to lead us as he had been prior, taking us to one of the nearby doorways. However, he seemed to second-guess himself, looking at the pristine interior of a corridor we entered. After murmuring something under his breath as he thought, we continued onwards.

These rooms were far more neat than all the others we came across, occasionally greeting us with more windows that displayed the dark and rainy void outside. Lightning would flash every so often, vibrating the room ever so slightly with the rumble of thunder. We passed through the evenly spaced columns in one particularly large space, pausing yet again as we figured out our bearings. Someone had gone through the effort of spray-painting a black arrow on a wall next to a doorway, though Sam ignored it and continued through another room.

The entire time we explored, we would occasionally come across open piles of trash far from the room we had been in, torn apart and picked through by what I could only assume was the hounds. We would also come by the holes in the walls too, doing our best to avoid them. However, it gradually started to seem like we were slowing down.

“Is everything alright Samuel? Why did we stop?” Olivia questioned as we came to yet another large interior with multiple directions we could go.

“I don’t remember this part too well… I haven’t been this deep on Level 4 in a while.”

“So… we’re lost?” She questioned.

“No, no… I just need to remember.” Sam reassured us both, thinking again with a few hums.

I idled with them for a few moments, taking in the sights of the new level to try and soothe my worries. I began to feel a little worse as things began to culminate, though I had begun to learn from my prior experiences. I fumbled for a moment with my one free hand, awkwardly wielding the kitchen knife as I began to unzip and look in my bag. I put the knife in for a moment so I could grab the bottle of half-empty almond water I had been occasionally using to snap myself out of my bouts of anxiety.

Like I had done many times before, I began to gently drink from the bottle, gulping down a good amount. I paused before I had fully exhausted what was left in the bottle, wanting to conserve whatever I could on the trip since I had no clue how easy it would be to find more. Olivia looked at me with a face I couldn’t quite decipher, bordering on amusement or endearment. I felt a bit embarrassed about it, though she spoke again soon enough.

“Need another bottle? They’re everywhere if you check some of the cubicles.” She informed me politely, pointing nearby to one.

The cubicles were something I hardly noticed that much, mostly focusing on the ways out of the rooms instead of what was within them. Taking her advice though, I decided to check the same one she pointed out.

This cubicle was one out of three in a little cluster, featuring a desk, an old computer monitor, and a potted plant. Oddly enough though, there was also a bottle of almond water sitting right there, free for the taking. Wasting little time, I grabbed it and checked the bottle to be sure I wasn’t being fooled. It was just as my eyes saw, a bottle of almond water, sealed as if it had never been opened.

“Huh…” I audibly said, preparing to put it in my bag before I heard Olivia shout.


I nearly jumped at the sound of her shouting, giving one of my own as I heard a sudden gargling growl, followed soon by a sharp pain in my left leg. I staggered back somewhat as whatever creature attacked stayed clinging to my leg with a deep stabbing bite. I began to try and kick it hard with my other leg. I stumbled back as it released me, revealing something I almost couldn’t believe. Something that looked like a dog wearing human skin, featuring a horrid, disfigured face that barely resembled a person.

This creature bore a large maw of jagged, sharp teeth, now coated in my blood. It began to growl and pant at me again, flicking its tongue through the veil of stringy dark hair that draped its face. Trying my best to flee, I stumbled as I picked myself off the ground, calling out in pain as I put weight on my injured leg.

Olivia ran to try and help, but before she could reach me, the hound under the cubicle let out a loud howl. It echoed, soon being parroted by many similar noises emanating from the nearby doorways. We appeared to be in a hopeless situation, possibly surrounded by these abominations.

Without another word, Olivia sprung into action as she finally reached me, putting an arm around my shoulders to help take the weight off my leg.

“Sam! Help me for goodness sake!” She called to him, causing Sam to run over in an attempt to do the same. However, he pulled me away from Olivia entirely.

“You’re going on my back, kid-” he ordered as he struggled to lift me. Olivia helped, but Sam soon began trying to hurry off as I held on.

I tried my best to maneuver myself onto Sam's back, letting out growls and huffs in my excruciating pain. It was hard with how fast Sam had managed to start running, but I managed to hold on tight anyway. Olivia wasn’t too far behind, being able to keep up with Sam with surprisingly little effort.

“Gah! My- My leg hurts like shit!” I exclaimed to Sam, although I didn’t know why. It was simply a spur-of-the-moment exclamation. However, it managed to cause Sam to look back at me, revealing his flat and serious face. It was the same one I saw before when we were attacked by the skin-stealers back on Level 0.

“It’ll be okay Jo! We can’t work on it right now, we need to get away!” Olivia reassured me, looking back at the sounds of snarling and yelping that pursued us.

I also attempted to look back, spotting the pack of hungry hounds that were galloping after us in awkward and unnatural limps. A few also dipped into the nearby burrows and holes in the walls, presumably in an attempt to cut us off or get to us sooner. Whatever it might’ve been, I felt like the situation was out of my control.

We must’ve been running for minutes, ducking and weaving through a large number of office spaces both furnished and vacant. However, we soon became lost in a large maze of cubicles. At almost every turn, Sam, Olivia, and I seemed to be cornered by hounds. They slowed and snarled, even crawling over the tops as they gathered and stalked. Sam felt tempted enough to draw his pistol again, and Olivia held her sword defensively, covering our back.

One hound lunged over the top of the cubicle, although as it lept, Olivia swiped with her sword, deeply cutting the beast. As it fell, it whimpered and flailed, prompting more to rush in for the attack. It wasn’t clear if Sam was simply frozen in fear or saving ammo, but he didn’t fire a single shot, moving back and to the side as he dodged the leaping beasts, allowing Olivia to handle them.

During the onslaught, Olivia seemed to handle herself quite well, hacking and slicing through a good portion of the hounds. Although this couldn’t last forever. One managed to bite onto her armored arm. It pulled and tried to pry the armor off her arm, growling as it and Olivia fought. It seemed to open up an opportunity for Olivia to be overwhelmed by other beasts, though it all came to a sudden stop.

A loud boom complimented by sparks of red suddenly landed beside her, suddenly spooking the pack of monsters. Olivia dispatched the one trying to bite her arm right after, looking right at Sam. She seemed to assume that it was his shooting that caused the odd fireball, though Sam looked just as confused as she did. His pistol, let alone any gun we knew could’ve caused such a thing.

That was when the true source of the fireball revealed itself, their presence made known by the jingling of metal amongst the distant yelping cries of the fleeing hounds. I tried to get off Sam’s back now that I felt like it was somewhat safe, trying to check what it was for myself. I was reminded of how much of a bad idea this was when I felt the shooting pain of my injured leg, seething and reaching for it.

Sam kept an eye out for the approaching noise, looking down the narrow gap between the cubicles as the jingling grew closer. I also tried to see what it was for myself, spotting who or whatever it was. A person clad in some kind of sewn-together robe of miscellaneous yellow fabrics. Some of these fabrics were patterned, but most were plain and mismatched colors of yellow, covered in a painted pattern resembling Level 0’s wallpaper.

The robed person lifted some kind of makeshift metal crook they carried, shaking it so that a few chains and metal bits along its curve jingled. In the process, they lifted their head, barely revealing the lower half of their pale skin hidden by the robe’s draping hood. They didn’t speak a word to us, making their intentions pretty unclear. The only thing I could infer was that whatever this person did was making Olivia a bit worried.

“Speak and reveal your intentions! I’ve slain many beasts already, I’m more than prepared to kill anything else that threatens us!” Olivia rashly shouted though Sam interjected to try and calm her.

“Easy girl, I wouldn’t tussle with someone who just threw a fucking fireball at us…”

I looked at Sam with worry, taken aback by his still flat expression. He appeared to be far less worried, though I wasn’t sure if he was feeling anything given how mechanical he seemed to be acting. Nonetheless, what he said managed to make Olivia reconsider and sheathe her sword.

At last, the robed individual finally spoke. Their voice was slightly monotone, raised to project loud enough to be heard throughout the whole room despite how close they were to us.

“Non-believers…” they called, raising both their crook and free arm, “you happen upon our hallowed ground in a time of need. May the moss bless you with security.”

Olivia’s expression grew to one of visible apprehension, looking to Sam for answers. I wasn’t sure what was going on at the moment, but I knew for sure that my leg needed serious medical treatment. It stung and still burnt, feeling warm and wet from the bleeding. I could barely stand on it much, though not like I was able to stand well to begin with. I started to feel pretty woozy, my vision blurring again as I began to feel light.

The person wearing the robe spoke, though I could barely comprehend a word through the rushing sound in my ears. Things continued to grow more and more hazy, darkening as I eventually collapsed.

I wasn’t sure what would happen to me, but I had hope that Sam and Olivia would make things alright.

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