James ducked, a blade went over his head missing by mear millimeters. It embedded itself in the stone wall behind him. An arrow whizzed past him, and behind him, his friend Alanna took it in the arm. All around their group, the ground ruptured, sprays of liquid rock splashed out into the open air, and a little too close to them and their foes. Dave flicked out his fingers, sending a spear of ice into two of their enemies, while Alanna took one of the remainder out with a sweep of her broadsword. Then, just as the way to the temple ahead of them seemed clear, out of the lava, a massive multi-limbed creature began to form, barring their way and...
"No, no. Stop. This is bullshit." James spoke.
Anesh looked up from across the table they sat at. "How? Every one of you got some kind of specific warning about how there was a lava monster, and you all ignored them."
Alanna chimed in, "Nah, I'm with James on this one. Our characters wouldn't have had the ability to understand any of those warnings. They're not geologists."
"Wait, hold up," Anesh said. "are you telling me you all intentionally roleplayed a group of people who are too dumb to understand lava? Is James talking in character here?"
They all nodded.
"Okay. Well. You're all cooked alive, and shortly thereafter, the world is consumed by fire as you did not stop the Kortian high priest's ritual. Congratulations. How in the hell did I let you all talk me into running D&D for you?"
James sipped his drink, and replied, "Peer pressure, mostly?"
"All of you get out of my house." He said as he walked out of the living room.
Behind him, James called out, "I live here!" Before turning back to the other two. "Well, it's been fun, guys, but I gotta get a nap before work tonight." Dave and Alanna said their goodbyes and headed out, leaving the apartment pleasantly quiet for a little while.
After they were gone, Anesh came back out to James clearing off the table. "Well, nonsense aside, hope that was amusing at least."
"Oh, yeah, it was a blast. We just wanted to see your reaction, and if you'd actually kill us off. It was great, dude." James reassured him as he stacked up cups and character sheets.
Sighing, Anesh sat down and plopped a folder onto the table. "Okay, just checking." He flipped the folder open, and started laying out what could easily be mistaken for another D&D game's maps onto the table. "So, it's Tuesday..."
James cut him off. "Nooooope."
Anesh looked up with puppy dog eyes. "What? Why not? Don't tell me you're already chickening out on this! I got beat up by decor, and I still want to go back in!"
James gave his friend a level look. "You got beat up by decor. It's been a whole week, dude. Show me your arm." Anesh sheepishly pulled down the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a forearm that was more bruise than anything else. "See? How can that not hurt?" James went to poke at Anesh's tender skin, and got his hand slapped in retribution.
"That's not the point." Anesh started arranging maps. "Just because we had one surprise doesn't mean I want to give up, especially not when there could be better skorbs in there. I want to try..."
"Skorbs?" James almost choked on his drink as he coughed out the question.
James leaned back. "Not a whole lot, really. It feels more foundational, like I know a lot about the basics of it, but not the particulars. I could, given a week and a manual, make you a simple adventure game, but I'd need to keep checking back on stuff, and there'd be bugs." He looked at the list of 'skills' he and Anesh had collected. "Do you have anything to report on... boats?"
"Ships." Anesh corrected. "And no. I pirated a copy of Jane's Ships and was looking through it. You know that feeling when you're reading something on Wikipedia and you already know the information, but you never would have been able to tell someone if they asked?"
"Like you're getting a refresher that you don't think you need, but totally need?" James prompted.
Anesh nodded. "Exactly. Like I can tell you that way more ships are minesweepers than you'd expect, but I can't actually tell you anything useful."
The two of them looked down at the notes for a minute, just thinking. "Okay," Anesh broke the silence, "what we need to do, clearly, is get another rank in the same skill, without practicing it, so we can compare."
James glared at his friend. He knew why Anesh was enthusiastic; it was the same reason that he was, after all. But he'd gotten more than just a few cuts this time. The ache he felt was across his whole body, and he was in no particular hurry to repeat the experience. "Man, I know you're into this, and I'm glad that you're on board with going diving with me, but I am just not up to it this week."
Anesh exaggerated his pout even further. James just shook his head; "No, seriously. Even with the extra preparation, we still got trashed by topiary. Victimized by vegetation. Pummeled by a potted plant."
His friend went back to sorting maps while he waited. "Got any more?"
"Fucked by foliage?"
"That one," Anesh said, "sounds more like what you don't mean. But I get your point. I'm pretty sore myself. I still want to go back, though. We don't have to go far in!" He quickly said in reaction to James' renewed hostile look. "We can just stay near the entrance! I just want to, you know, check on the stuff we left. Do a little mapping. I also want to look at some of the computers near the entrance, just to see if they're worth it."
James shook his head. He knew that if he caved on this point, that Anesh would have them going back in every week no matter how much of a wreck he felt like. But it was a good point; there was still a lot of stuff to check out, and if there were two of them...
He realized that he was doing Anesh's job for him, and trying to convince himself it was a good idea. No, this would not do. Time to put his foot down.
"Alright, sure. We'll just stick near the entrance." Wait, hang on. That wasn't what he was supposed to say.
Anesh smiled. "Great! So, this map we've got is pretty incomplete, and I want to fill it in more so that we can start checking off where we've looted. The place doesn't seem to refresh ever?" He aimed that as a question at James.
"Not that I've noticed, no." James was marking points on the map where the different entities had been encountered.
Anesh noted that down too. "Okay, well, I'm gonna see if I can figure out anything else that we should be bringing with us. We need some way of dealing with the plants, and that cord thing you talked about, without..."
"...burning the whole place down with us in it, you prat."
James sulked. "Fine."
"Well. That aside. Is there anything you want to test while we're there?" Anesh asked.
James considered for a minute. He had a lot of generalized "why aren't more things like an actual RPG" questions that had been sort of nagging him since this had started. Why weren't there health potions? Why did he get sort-of-status-messages for the skill orbs? Were there other kinds of orbs, maybe for, say, stats? Did this mean he could level up? Really, why weren't there health potions? Was there a boss fight? Did this dungeon exist for a reason?
Actually, that was kind of the big point. He clearly wasn't the main character, he had no illusions of heroism. Was he usurping destiny here? Taking away the important dungeon quest from someone who was actually supposed to be doing it?
"Hey, Anesh..." He started, then trailed off. "Do you worry that... Ah. I'm curious if there's health potions somewhere." He clipped his own question off, deciding that it was a bit too silly. They were well outside the territory of normality, but the idea that he, a more or less bored IT guy, could upset fate, was a bit too much.
His friend either missed his hesitation, or just allowed his awkwardness to go unremarked. "I'll put it on the list of things to look into. I'm also curious if there's non-skill orbs; I don't know about you, but I'm wondering if there's any that change us physically. And then also if we should maybe not touch those, because it's probably a trap. Anyway! We can talk more later. Go to bed. If you're late and get fired and we lose out on this, I will be irritated with you for at least a month."
James nodded. He'd been up for a while, and he did need to sleep for a little while before work. Anesh was right that he couldn't really afford to be fired here. As he'd told his friend, the stakes had never been lower, but that wasn't really true.
He had an opportunity. Something no one else had ever had. And he'd be damned if he was going to throw it away.
James flopped into his bed, and drifted off to sleep under the soft glow of the larger skill orb that he and Anesh hadn't decided what to do with. The thing made a smugly comforting night light, and while James knew that it probably wasn't going to be anything super useful, the delayed satisfaction of knowing that it would be *something* made him grin as he napped.
It was going to be a long night. And, sore or not, he couldn't help be excited.
Out in the living room, Anesh scratched down notes. After getting over his shock at the whole situation, he kind of got why James was so eager to have his help; he liked planning, and James didn't seem to like thinking things through that much. Anesh always thought things through, at least a little bit.
Right now, he had a short list of their other friends. People either he or James trusted. He didn't think James really saw the potential for wealth that Door to Another Office represented. If even one in every five computers in there worked, that was something they could sell off. Those coats they'd been plucking wallets out of? Those were of more obvious value than a four dollar bill. The furniture, could they manage to get that out? Getting a series of desks past the security desk might be an issue, but a good desk was a couple hundred bucks.
They were going after the easy money, the soft targets. But with a few more people, they could strip that place to the walls. The skill orbs were what got him interested, but the potential for something more was what made him think.
Not that the orbs didn't also make him think. They needed more people so they could push deeper, and get more impressive bonuses. If he could gain in one night enough knowledge to skip even a single 300-level class in his degree program? That was huge. But it was so erratic. They'd need to be on the lookout for a way to de-randomize it.
Of course, trusting people was one thing. Trusting them with a crowbar was another. That triggered another thought, and he made a note to buy a couple machetes from that creepy military surplus store that constantly advertised how many machetes they had for sale. He knew James was afraid of it, but he wanted to try taking down that cord monster. But, again, after they'd maybe gone to the gym as a group for a few months.
And then there were the risks.
Death, obviously. Somewhere no one would ever know or notice. But Anesh was a pessimist; that was something that he'd been worried about ever since he had to pay rent on his own and realized just how financially crippled he was, saddled with student loans and medical bills for two siblings. No, what concerned him here was the existential threat. What happened if they took one of the stapliders out the door? Was it still going to be an impossible, hostile, thing? What happened if the door got stuck open, and something else came through?
What if that was the point? Were the skill orbs and food and money just bait for suckers exactly like them?
He made a note. He looked at the table of notes, and made another note to organize this on his laptop where he could actually read it later.
It was going to be a long night, waiting for James' shift to end. Though, worried or not, he couldn't help but be excited.
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Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!