We Found Our Way
rating: +14+x

Finding Paradise

I met him at a bar.
There he stood.
I asked their name.
Not a soul responded.

Drowned in grief.
We Found Our Way

It seemed that my only hope at the time was to press onwards. I limped and left a small trail of water which dripped from my clothes as I went along. Until then I had neglected the fact that the bandage wrapped on my bite had become completely useless. The bite on my leg was now completely exposed, the bandage tangled in my foot as I dragged it. Each step sent a burning ache up my leg, reminding me of how screwed I was.

I passed through each passageway, panting and struggling to walk straight. Was this really it? Was I destined to be lost alone in these halls, alone and never to be found? The fear of being helpless in the monotonous halls scared me more than the concept of any creature swooping in to make me into an easy meal. I panted, stumbling in pain as I wandered in the eerie droning hum from the walls. Occasionally I would even call out for help, even if I knew the chances of me being found were slim to none.

The longer I pressed ahead, the more claustrophobic things began to seem. The drab milky white of the metal walls and piping felt like they were gradually crushing down on me. Fear began to get ahold of me, though I had no almond water to help myself. Why did I even agree to come on this trip with Sam to begin with? It was such a stupid idea, and I wasn’t even going to get anything out of it. I began to wish that I stayed in the blissful bubble of Level 11. At least then I wouldn’t have experienced all these otherworldly horrors.

Things only began to grow worse for me. I could hear the faint murmuring and whispers from around me. The shadows in the corner of my disoriented vision shifted and moved as I forced my body to stumble along. I barely felt living, let alone conscious. I was consumed by my paranoid delusions and regret, mindlessly progressing with no goal or sense of direction. I wandered the sharp turns and straight paths in what all felt like one tan haze without an end.

I attempted to murmur words of reassurance to myself knowing no better. I was blinded by my delusions, lost in the labyrinth of my own consciousness as I suddenly tripped. I groaned in pain, weakly pushing myself off the ground as I briefly freed myself from my daze. I had tripped right into some stairs that led up to somewhere with natural light. It filled me with a sudden hope that maybe I would find something–someone or anyone–up there.

Pulling myself to my feet, I began to drag myself up the steps gradually, stumbling as I pulled my injured leg up after me. As much as the shooting, burning pain bothered me, I managed to gather the willpower to continue ascending the steps. Despite there only being a dozen or so steps, it felt like hiking up a mountain. Grunting in pain, I managed to get up each step until I reached the top.

It felt like ages since I had seen the natural light pouring in from the windows, stinging my eyes as I suddenly looked away from the portholes. Something about the light felt wrong about it, as if I shouldn’t be staring or even glancing at the light. I continued to blindly wander, though I did keep my eyes covered with my arm. Using my free arm, I blindly traced my hand along the cold wall. Every bit of slightly peeling paint or textured surface acted as my guide, leading me to another doorway to hopefully get away from the light.

Trying to remove my arm from my eyes, I peeked out to glance around where I had ended up. To no one’s surprise though, it was yet another drab, windowless corridor. The hope I had gathered whilst getting up the stairs was now fleeting, returning me to the same sense of dread in the monotony of the pale painted walls. Exhaling, I let out a small whimper as I hobbled along again.

Putting pressure and walking on my injured leg was starting to become nearly unbearable now. I forgot how long I had been going for, although ideally, I wouldn’t be putting any weight on it whatsoever. With each slow step, I dragged my leg with a seethe, calling out from the unbearable sensation it gave me.

“God, this is fucking hopeless!” I exclaimed out loud, knowing that there probably wasn’t a living thing anywhere around to hear me anyway. Despite that though, the sense of dread I felt still lingered.

Continuing, I growled in pain constantly as I went about finding my way. I wasn’t even sure what my goal was now, or what I was looking for. However, I did suddenly stop as I heard something faint down one of the many hallways. Quick footsteps echoed and faded, indicating that if anything, another living creature was nearby. Hell, it could’ve even been a person. In the best-case scenario, I would even be reunited with Sam, wherever he might’ve been…

I immediately began to follow the distant pattering, hoping to catch up to it despite how sluggish I was. I tried my best to disregard how much my body was hurting, stumbling and using the wall to keep myself upright. Weakly I called out, barely forming words as I mumbled and staggered around in my weakness.

It only took a few moments for me to discover something else new. A doorway looking into a simplistic room. It featured just a table with some chairs grouped around it. Balloons floated above the table, tied to the chairs. Some loosely floated up to the ceiling as if someone had just untied them. Invitingly, a cake was left in the very center of the table, just waiting for someone to come and sit down to eat.

The whole setup almost felt too perfect. Some cheerful and cartoony music also played, getting louder as I took a step into the room. The whole room was empty except for the furniture perfectly placed in the middle. If there was something here, it was long gone, it appeared. The whole situation felt like an obvious trap, though at the same time, it could’ve been left by some well-meaning people. After all, the cake looked just fine. The white frosting, red sprinkles, everything looked perfectly edible.

Before doing anything, I looked around me one last time, seeing a doorway to my left that led to another hall, although this one seemed to have colored pipes at the corner of its ceiling. I kept it in mind as a new way to go as I went for the cake. There weren’t any utensils or plates provided, and I had lost the knife I would’ve used to cut the cake otherwise. Because of this, I began to casually reach for it, taking a deep breath as my hand pressed into the oddly squishy and moist cake. Something felt very wrong about it…

“Stop-” A voice suddenly ordered, causing me to remove my hand from the cake in shock. I looked to the source of the voice, staring right at the ethereal, yellow-robed Strelkov.

I was at a loss for words, looking into the shining emerald green of their eyes. Their wavy hair looked to be soaked as if they had followed me the whole way somehow. Unable to defend myself or run with my injured leg, I cowered in shock, staring them down as they shuffled closer to me. They didn’t have their crook, although they did hold some kind of glass vial of glowing amber dust, clutching it as they hurried up to me.

Holding up my arm, I tried to block myself from any kind of punch or attack they might have thrown my way. However, Strelkov simply grabbed my arm and pulled me towards them.

“Did you take a bite of that accursed meal? One must never consume these ominous treats…” They sternly questioned, shifting their gaze between my hand and the cake rapidly.

I shook my head in a hurry like a petrified child caught reaching into a cookie jar. “N-No! I’m sorry we ran! My friend-” I exclaimed in a panic trying to defend my actions. However, Strelkov cut me off.

“I don’t know where your ‘friend’ is… I’m still in search of that unholy creature. You couldn’t have known, initiate… You were fooled by their human facade…” They told me in a grumble, their focus returning to the cake. “If you didn’t eat any of this then it isn’t too late. Let us return to the church so we may cleanse you of your sins again…”

I shook my head, unsure if I could even try and get back to Sam if I were brought back to Level 4 where the rest of Strelkov and Father Smith’s cult were. “But I need to find my friends! Sam could be anywhere around here!”

“Your friend Sam? The other initiate who had his little goal… It has nearly been three days… he could be anywhere…”

“Three days?” I questioned, wondering how much of that time might’ve been spent wandering this level all on my own. “But I have to find him… we had a goal.”

It felt wrong to mention that me and Sam had our goal, especially after the time I spent mindlessly contemplating how stupid it was of me to choose to accompany him. Either way, I could only imagine what he was experiencing if I was subject to such torment. Not to mention now I knew Olivia was still alive out there somewhere.

“Nonsense… that another initiate isn’t worth the trouble. We must go-”

Strelkov began to try and pull me along with them, but I fought back, pulling away with the remaining strength I had. “Come on! Please Strelkov, I’ll do anything to find Sam again to complete our journey!”

“Anything? Hm…” They contemplated, looking at the corridor ahead, the same one featuring the colored piping. “How about hunting down the unholy creature?”

Their words caused me to freeze and contemplate for a moment. Olivia could never be found for all I knew, and I didn’t necessarily have to hurt her at all when we’d find her. I still worried about what would possibly happen if I agreed to the offer. Either way, it was my only hope of possibly getting out of this place safely.

“Sure… I’ll uh, I’ll help if it means I find Sam again.”

Strelkov seemed far more satisfied with the answer, crossing their arms a bit. They juggled the vial of amber crystalline dust, opening their robe to place it into a slot on a makeshift bandolier around their chest. I was unsure if it would be wise of me to question what all the glittering dust in them was, so I kept my mouth shut for the duration of the act.

Regardless, Strelkov checked the room one last time like they were looking for something. They also simply swiped the whole cake off the nearby table, causing it to splatter across the floor in an odd red paste. I jumped from the sudden surprise of the clatter and impact, confused as to why they pushed it so suddenly.

“We won’t want to linger in this room for long. Come now, let’s search…” They practically ordered, guiding me out by the hand without warning.

It still felt wrong to speak, even as I felt the aura of my environment drastically shift as I entered the hallway with the colored pipes. We paused when Strelkov checked their surroundings, starting to lead me yet again. The hallways felt almost the same, although there seemed to be more intersecting halls and a green streak that ran along them all. They culminated in little labels on the hall, clearly indicating the different rooms. I would’ve had a chance to read them, though Strelkov was leading me past each intersection too quickly to read them all.

I continued to limp along with Strelkov as we carried on through the maze. Despite Strelkov saying they were searching, it seemed like they had a destination in mind. We were taking what felt like a predetermined path through the many passageways and halls. Based on the colors of the lines that traced evenly along the walls, it seemed like Strelkov was swiftly taking us to wherever it was the blue line on the wall led.

When we began to slow, I seethed with each step I took on my still-injured leg. The deep bite intensely burned as it rubbed over and over against the fabric of my pants. After giving a sudden yelp, Strelkov stopped and gave me an oddly intense stare again.

“Are you unwell…?” They questioned, their pupils dilating to pinpoints in the sea of bright green that made up their irises.

I shot a pretty pained, unintentionally angry look at them, nodding. “It’s my foot or- or whatever I got bit on. It hasn’t healed.”

“It has not?” They asked in response, raising an eyebrow at me, almost as if they were confused.

“N-No! I was in the water and the bandage slipped off-”

“Shame…” Strelkov suddenly mumbled, shaking their head a bit. They tugged on my arm again, though. “We will seek medical attention for you shortly. We have someone we must find, though.”

I gave a little grumble. “Olivia?” I asked, “are you really that concerned about finding her that you can’t take a single second to stop and help me somehow?!”

Sensing I had suddenly angered Streklov, I pulled away by instinct, giving a nervous exhale. They released my arm without an issue, their brow furrowing in confusion as they took their own hand to feel and fidget with, obsessively rubbing a thumb across their palm.

“Are you going to make this hard for me? I swear by the moss I could’ve left you for dead back there…” Strelkov mumbled almost incoherently to me, although it was spoken as if they were speaking to themself out loud.

“Is it really too much to at least ask to stop for a few moments so I can wrap it up again? It hurts really bad.”

I was hoping to at least garner some sympathy from them, since it didn’t look like Strelkov was processing the situation fully. They continued looking at their own hand, talking what felt like a whole extra minute of standing silently to contemplate. Their attention eventually shifted to my leg, their eyes widening as they saw it. I wasn’t quite sure why they seemed so surprised until I looked down to check it for myself.

The fabric of my pants had a few holes from when I was bitten, revealing the sickly color of what seemed like a developing infection. It mixed with fresh blood from where my skin was rubbed raw from the walking, creating a miasma of pestilence smeared and running down my lower leg. I could only stammer as I grew pale and weak in the knees. How was it developing in such a short amount of time?

“That needs more than a simple bandage…” Strelkov replied, as obvious of a fact as their comment was.

I could only muster a few anxious stammers, too busy growing sick with worry as I tried thinking of ways to distract myself. I looked up at Strelkov, hoping that they would give me any sort of advice or aid.

They suddenly hurried up to me, reaching into their robe for a moment. They took something from their collection of many vials, popping the cork off of whatever strange concoction they had chosen. The small glass tube had a runny amber substance I assumed was honey based on the consistency and texture. Strelkov held two fingers under the lip of the vial, collecting a good amount of the jelly before they began to smear it onto my wound.

As soon as the viscous orange gel made contact with my deep bite it sizzled. I felt the warmth of it reacting and bubbling on my flesh. My teeth clenched to hold back the growl of pain as it suddenly began to harden like a crust to seal the bites, cauterizing and calcifying.

“The almond gel will keep it at bay, but you will need something to properly treat that. My remedies can only do so much.”

Nodding to Strelkov, I took a deep breath after the pain subsided. “Thanks for applying… whatever almond thingy that was. Where are we even going?”

“There’s a settlement here on Level 103, and I reckon if your friends are around and searching for you, they’d have stopped there.”

After being stuck wherever it was I had been wandering for what felt like ages, the concept of a group of people voluntarily living in a place like this seemed abstract. Perhaps it was just the fact that I was a complete amateur when it came to exploring levels, but I felt like I had lost my mind just a few moments ago by simply walking. The whole place felt like the exact opposite of what a person required to thrive.

“People… live here?”

Amused by my comment, Strelkov gave an airy scoff. “Yes, a good few,” they nodded, “there’s a wealth of supplies about. Our followers were once scouting for a good space to establish another congregation of our own here.”

“But it seems… unsafe? I didn’t find anything of use when I was blindly stumbling around before You found me?” I rebuked.

“Hm? Well, perhaps your eyes weren’t keen. There’s lines along the walls which say exactly where you’d need to go.”

Shaking my head, I had to yet again disagree. “Not down where I was there wasn’t. It was just the same halls over and over. Not a soul in sight.”

“Ah! Oh I see!” Strelkov suddenly realized, grinning. “You must’ve been on Level 17! That party room created a little junction between both this level and that. Didn’t think a trap could be useful like that…”

“Should I ask?…” I wondered, checking down from where we had just come from at the mere mention of the word “trap”.

“Ah, worry not. I recall your friend saying you were fresh into this wonderful world, I shouldn’t fill your head with worries.” They told me with a good amount of dismissal, waving their hand a bit. Not long after though, they suddenly resumed walking.

I resumed following behind them, although the anxiety of the pervading question still lingered. Strelkov at least took my injury into consideration. They were walking a bit slower for my sake, allowing me to walk separately from them. Our shuffling footsteps echoed and thumped across the metal hull of the halls we went through, though we stopped at a small intersection where a few of the painted lines from the other halls converged.

Now that we weren’t blasting by them, I could actually see what they said.

Engine room →
Berth →
Cafeteria ←
Trauma center ←
Biohazard containment ←

The fact that there was an area labeled as a “trauma center” among the locations listed gave me hope that perhaps something there could help me. It even looked like Strelkov was headed that way. We both turned in the same direction as it and the other two labels, passing by a few more intersections as we made a diverging turn.

“Uhh, are we going to get me some help from the trauma center place? We turned the opposite way of it…” I spoke up.

“Ah, the people we seek probably wouldn’t be there…”

“What do you mean? Couldn’t they be all over the place?”

They shook their head at my question. “There are still dangers. Being spread out in a place that can constantly shift and change is dangerous. They use the cafeteria as their main gathering place.”

I nodded slowly at the explanation, understanding what they meant. After all, Sam and I got separated pretty easily. It all started to feel a bit ironic to me. I began this trip with the intention of finding Sam’s partner, but now I was the one searching for him. I even had an entirely different person to show me around. However, it felt like that was starting to change.

Within a few minutes, we made it to a closed bulkhead door. The valve to open it had a sign hanging on it to act as a message. “Guests please knock and wait.” it simply read. Strelkov at least had the common decency to knock as it instructed, waiting patiently.

Someone did eventually open up the door partway, looking at the two of us for a moment before opening all the way. They showed themself to be wearing the patchwork mess of an outfit, giving us both some confused stares.

“Who are you two…?” The person suddenly asked, no doubt confused about the people they were seeing.

I looked to Strelkov so they could explain though surprisingly, they seemed to be looking at me expecting an answer too.

I gulped, figuring it was up to me to come up with an answer. I stammered, looking at the person in my own confusion. “We’re searching for someone. And uh, maybe getting some help?”

“Ah yeah? You two definitely don’t look like you come from the ship… What do you two need?”

“Oh you see…” Strelkov spoke, taking a moment to respond, grabbing my arm in the process, “My friend here has a severe injury on their leg. We’re also searching for… two people.”

For a few moments, they looked at us with a growing curiosity. Seeing the tear in my pants with the calcified goo keeping my wound packed. Spotting it made them grimace.

“I see what you mean… come in.” They said to the two of us, letting both me and Strelvok enter the spacious cafeteria.

Whilst the ceiling was low there was lots of space for what felt like one of many cafeterias on the level, it was all taken up by people. Makeshift beds and other setups among the rows of tables made it clear that everything happened in just this one room. All the conversing going on amongst the people stopped as we stepped through the doorway.

“You aren’t merchants…” One of the many strangers nearby murmured. Everyone around us began to say their own disappointed murmurs too, returning to their normal activities like nothing was out of the ordinary.

I looked to the person who let us in. They had gone to close the door behind us, hurrying back over to me particularly. “What’s your name kid? Lemme get that leg looked at for you-” They suddenly insisted, taking me by the arm.

“I’m an adult-” I quickly said back, trying to free myself from them. Strelkov wasn’t holding onto my arm anymore and I wasn’t keen on being dragged around by yet another stranger.

“Woah, easy partner. There’s a doctor right over there who’ll help you out.” The stranger insisted, letting go of me anyways.

Just a little suspicious, I looked back at Strelkov, whose attention had been grabbed by my stern response. “Hm? Are you going to get treatment?”

“I… I suppose so. I figure you know these people enough for me to trust them?” I questioned them.

“I wouldn’t say I know them personally. Our acolytes came across them on their expedition here… They’re peaceful.”

“We’re… a little familiar with you folk.” The stranger leading me interjected. “You all were around on the surface of the carrier looking through the crates and stuff. You traded with us then… I figured you all would again?”

I felt a little confused by their assumption that I was one of those cultists Strelkov was a member of, but I figured these people probably ran off what little they saw.

“I just happened to be found by my friend there… I don’t know them very well past that.” I confessed to the man leading me.

They shrugged in response. “Oh well, it isn’t like anyone else who comes here isn’t a trader or scav. You’re probably one of those at least?”

“No… just… someone looking for a person,” I replied in honesty, though based on the man’s look, he didn’t buy it all the way.

Regardless of what I said to the stranger, he continued to guide me along towards a makeshift tent setup. The tarp had a small red cross crudely painted on it, almost like some kind of emergency shelter. It felt like something from a battlefield, though I didn’t question it. Anything that got me the medical help I needed at the moment was just fine with me. Hell, maybe Olivia or Sam were also there.

I held my breath for a moment, allowing myself to be led inside.

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