Two swords came together with a light metallic clash. The long thin blades, epees, met in the air between the two fighters, one of them lunging, the other casually turning the strike aside. They both pulled back, and again the aggressor stepped forward and aimed a thrust at his opponent. Again, it was casually turned aside, sword point going too far to his left to recover before his opponent made a quick motion and took him in the chest.
The struck fighter took a staggering step back, caught off guard. He frantically brought his blade up to try to catch a counterattack, but misplaced it, and instead let his opponent easily slap his weapon off to the side again, before being hit in the shoulder.
Almost faster than he could keep track of, his opponent, now on the offensive, lunged, coming in low under his counterswipe, and stabbing right into his neck. And just like that, the fight was over.
"Okay, ow." James said as he was stabbed. Again.
Stepping off the pitch, Anesh pulled off his fencing helmet. "You are surprisingly bad at this." He said, as the pair went over to their bench to sit for a minute.
They'd been here for about an hour. Partly because James had been big on going to the gym lately, and this place that he'd gotten a membership to happened to have a fencing pitch with gear they could rent. Partly because both of them were aware that, if they were going to go deeper into the Office, they were going to need some serious self-improvement. And partly because Anesh wanted to experiment with his level up.
Also, it was convenient that this activity didn't take his left hand, which was still healing.
"I'm not bad at this." James said between panted breaths after downing half a bottle of water. "You are just unbelievably good at this."
Anesh shook his head as he sat. He was winded, sure but throughout their bouts, he'd just been moving less than James. Putting in less effort. And yet. "I was expecting you to at least score a point. I mean, I'm literally fighting with one hand behind my back here."
"We both are! Fencing is one handed!" James snapped back, still breathing heavy, chest heaving as he slouched over on the bench.
Anesh started making notes on his phone. "Okay, so, your griping aside, that's ten to zero, my favor." James growled a bit. "I'm not rubbing it in, mate, just saying. That's from a single skill point, in a skill with a weapon that isn't exactly an epee. I'm starting to get confused at exactly what a skill point represents."
"Well," James said, "in this case, it represents you curb stomping me. It's a shame that it's midnight and no one else is here. We should come back sometime when there's random people you can challenge. See how long they've been doing this and training, right?"
"Right, makes sense. I'll make a note, do it sometime this week." Anesh nodded to his friend. "Oh, speaking of things we need to do, did you, um, talk to Alanna about... well, all this?"
The two had briefly talked a few days ago. Between Anesh's school and James' work, and opposed sleep schedules, they didn't actually get a lot of chances to sit down for long conversations these days. But in one of those moments when one of them was almost out the door and the other had just come home, Anesh brought up the idea of more teammates, and James had agreed. They'd both had one of their friends to talk to, to see if they could get some more manpower. Well, Alanna was a lady, so manpower might not be the best word.
Actually, James thought, Alanna was more of a bruiser than a prim and proper lady. A thug. Thugpower. Yes, he thought, that's where his brain settled.
Still... "No, actually." He said to Anesh. "I... um... couldn't? Did you talk to JP?"
Anesh, who a second ago was looking kind of sheepish, suddenly lowered his eyebrows into a thoughtful expression. "No, I didn't. I couldn't either. I was going to, but then, I kept finding reasons not to. Or just forgetting. And then, I had a nightmare about it, but I think that's stress related."
"Me too." James said, suddenly curious. "What the hell?"
"You had a nightmare?" Anesh said, shocked. "What about?"
James shook his head, thinking for a second before answering. "It was mostly nonsense, like every dream. Hard to put it into words. But the one thing that stands out is that I kept bringing people to the dungeon, and they kept dying. Just from knowing about it."
"That sounds too familiar." Anesh looked over at his friend, frowning. "Okay, we never really talked about this properly, but what's our policy on secrecy here? You told me, but it felt like you didn't want me to tell anyone else. Why?"
"I didn't really think about it." James said. "I mean, I can think of a lot of reasons not to tell, like, 'the government', mostly selfish ones. I don't think there's any benefit to sharing with other people, and it doesn't feel like there any potential to solve larger scale problems in the world. Like, randomly spawned candy won't fix world hunger. But I didn't actively think of those. I just kind of didn't tell anyone. Except you, obviously."
"That bothers me. Is there something stopping us from sharing? Are we supposed to do this alone? Why? It doesn't make sense that you told me, but that's the limit."
This got a laugh from James. "Of course it doesn't make sense. Think about how many arbitrary things we've been exposed to so far. If it was properly explained, I'd be pissed." He shook his head. "No sense worrying about it now. You want to go home and sort out all the loot from last time? We can figure out what to do for gear too."
"Yeah, though I'm still angry at the mental coercion. We dive the dungeon, it's not supposed to dive us. But, yes, I am sick of hitting things with a crowbar. How have you done this so often? My hands are still bruised."
"It is," James conceded, "an inefficient weapon. But I was pretty much just using it because I couldn't afford anything better. Oh, and then the machetes. Which, yeah, not great."
The two of them turned in their gear, and headed to the car. By silent agreement, they spent the drive debating what fast food to get, rather than anything heavier. They got sidetracked after getting burgers, and the remainder of the trip home turned into a heated argument about anime tropes.
"No, no. The ending makes it creepy, and you're lucky I broke my machete or I'd disagree a lot more fervently." James yelled back as they took the stairs up.
Anesh laughed. "Calm down, friend. The neighbors don't wanna hear you murder me over your bad taste in media." As they got inside, he followed up, "Anyway, speaking of machetes, you want to get the bag over to the table? We can sort through how much cash we got and decide what to spend it on, gear wise."
As Anesh moved their fast food bags to the far end, James brought over the duffel with their unsorted loot, frantically piled in before their fast exit last time, and left untouched since. At Anesh's prompt, he shrugged and dumped it out onto the table, a sprawling pile of money, candy, skill orbs, and other random stuff they'd picked up.
After catching all the skill orbs that rolled off the table, Anesh grabbed a fancy looking pen than James had snagged, along with some scratch paper. From around a mouthful of fries, he said, "okay, you sort out the stuff, I'll count up the cash."
The two of them worked quick, pausing every now and then for a bit of food. Since Anesh was counting, James didn't say anything, though he reminded himself to ask why his roommate had apparently grabbed a copy of Yes Pony Things magazine. A quick flip through showed that it was mostly gibberish; every third word, literally, was "horse". The flip kept going, though, and James found himself getting a headache as more and more paper went by without the pages ever seeming to pile up in his hand. "Well, I found a non-euclidian piece of media."
Anesh looked up from his notepad, then held it up for James to see. "Check this out."
"I can't read that, it's all in cursive." James said, frustrated trying to decipher his roommate's handwriting.
A nod in response. "Exactly. I wasn't writing in cursive." He tossed James the pen he'd taken from the bag. "Try it."
James pulled a notecard over and tried to write down 'dickbutt'. It came out in flowing, elegant script, that he had no way to actually read. "This is really cool, but ultimately useless. Why's it do that?"
"I mean, we were bound to find magic items eventually." Anesh said, taking the pen back. Curious, he unscrewed the back, and pulled the pen apart, checking to see if there was anything weird about the inside. As he drew the ink tube out of the center, there was a strange *snapping* feeling. Not a noise, but judging by how James snapped his head up, he'd felt it too. In Anesh's fingers, the pen dissolved into fine sand, leaving only a small, blue, slightly glowing orb. "Ah. Well. I guess that's why." He said.
James' eyes were wide, locked on the new color of orb. "Ooooh boy." He said excitedly. "Well, I've got my tally if you do. We can... we can get to that one at the end, yeah?"
"Yeah." Anesh agreed, rolling the orb in his fingers before setting it down. "Yeah, we have..." He checked his cursive notes, piles of sorted bills around him, "$1,924 in usable currency. Also about $50 in notes that aren't real. I vote for throwing those in the fireplace before anyone asks us why we're shitty counterfitters. How about on your end?"
James looked at the piles around him. "Well, we've got two big orbs, six smaller ones, and that blue one. I'll try not to drool." he snarked as Anesh gave him a look for his silly tone of voice. "Aside from that, a couple dozen candy bars, four mousepads for some reason, a pretty nice leather jacket, your weird pony magazine, and a bottle of multivitamins. Wait, no, sorry, they're 'multivoltamins. I'm not eating these."
The two of them looked at the pile of stuff. "Okay," Anesh said, "how about we put some of the cash into gear, and then split the rest? Even split on the skill orbs. And... I'll let you have the blue one, if I get the jacket."
"Deal." James didn't even think about it. "Want to crack 'em now?"
Anesh shook his head, smiling. "I mean, sure. But you sound like a kid who just got a new video game. Or, you know, someone actually addicted. Wait, these aren't addicting, are they?"
"Nah, I'm just really into this" James had already split the orbs into two piles. He held one up, and Anesh matched the gesture. "Level up." He said, grinning like a madman.
[+1 Skill Rank : Driving - Semi-Truck]
[+1 Skill Rank : Repair - Small Engine]
[+1 Skill Rank : History - Oregon]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Bureaucracy - Federal]
"Holy shit, some of these are actually really cool." Anesh said. And James couldn't help but agree with him. This was it. This was what he'd started this whole thing for. The money was great, the candy was delicious assuming he didn't eat so much he ended up diabetic, but this? He could fix a lawnmower. Without even really trying, honestly. He could go be a trucker. He wasn't GOING to, but he COULD.
Options. Flexibility. Knowledge. This was what he wanted. What it all came down to.
And he sure as hell wasn't going to stop here.
"Okay Anesh, what're we doing for kit? We've gotta replace the medkit I left in there. Probably upgrade that, if we don't want to end up in serious trouble. We need weapons. And something to deal with the tumblefeed?"
Anesh gave him a manic grin. "Oh!" He almost shouted. "That reminds me!" He reached down to one of the chairs where he'd piled up a bunch of paper, and pulled out a book. A few books, actually. He tossed them over to James, who checked out the titles.
"what the fuck are these books? Ragnar Benson's Guide To Dragonfire? Ragnar Benson's Mantrapping Manual? Where did you get theres?"
"Ah, well, about that..."
"The back half of this book is just a list of OTHER BOOKS! Wait, homemade C-4?" James looked up sharply at his roommate. "Are you secretly a government agent or something?"
"While I'm really glad you went to that, and not 'terrorist', no." Anesh said. "Turns out you can just buy these on Amazon. Anyway, there's one on improvised explosives. I'm thinking that, or thermite. Which would require holding it down, which is why I got the one on traps as well. They're surprisingly informative."
James was half annoyed, but also impressed. "You know, I know I said we should work on improving ourselves in preparation, but this is kind of beyond what I meant. I was talking about, like, going to the gym and learning how to shoot from Alanna or something."
"You want guns?" Anesh asked. "Isn't that gonna cause a huge problem?"
"Well, I don't really want guns, that was just an example. And an excuse to hang out with Alanna." Anesh snorted at his friend. James had a fairly significant crush on their friend. Well, that wasn't exactly fair to make fun of him for; Anesh did too. It was hard not to, really. Alanna was one of those people who used charisma as a main stat at character creation.
"Okay, okay." Anesh held up his hands. "Let's just make a list, yeah? Then we can sort out how much cash we'll have left over. Oh, are you gonna crack that one?" He pointed to the untouched blue orb on the table.
"I'm saving it for after this." James said. "Savoring it."
"Surrrrre... So, for weapons, I'm thinking..."
The list ended up being fairly moderate. A professional first aid kit, and then another one at Anesh's prompting that they needed redundancy for something that important. For primary weapons, the original proposition had been kukris, as both of them we're weirdly excited about the Nepalese knives. But after checking the costs for an actual good kukri, that got put on hold for now. Instead, they opted for hand axes, having found one for sale online with good reviews from people who gave it heavy use. Also, one of them would have a compact construction sledgehammer. Basically for the same reason as the crowbar, but easier on the hands, and with a little more power behind it. They also each got a compact taser. More for an experiment than anything else.
They also picked up some food. Quite a bit of food, really. Until they could test how long the time dilation actually lasted, they needed to maximize their chances of surviving for a long time cut off from the outside world. Well, 'food' was a stretch. They were mostly just about fifty MREs. They both tried one each, and decided they hated them, but that starving would be worse, and that they were on a budget.
A lot of their money was going into buying a series of six wireless cameras. After Anesh's discovery that the dungeon had wi-fi, they'd talked about ways to exploit that. They were planning on testing for other devices on the network, but just for now, they could easily set up their own mini-surveillance network to get in and out a little more safely.
Finally, after some googling, they settled on upgrading their football armor a bit. The helmets Anesh had bought were still good, and to that, they added riot gloves, police-grade arm- and legguards, and combat boots.
They decided to not start buying bomb making supplies off the internet. For now. But Anesh would see if he could pick up what they needed to make some pipe bombs later. They did get a weighted net though, and, at James insistence, a pair of industrial bolt cutters. When asked if that was necessary, he muttered something about poetic justice and then changed the subject.
"Is this maybe too much?" James asked after looking at their long list.
Anesh held up his broken hand, and then started pointing to bruises on his arm and James' neck. "Is this enough?"
"Yeah, okay, good point." James said. "Oh, I was also thinking. It seems like the better stuff really is farther in. And so far, nothing has really respawned. Maybe we should use our next haul to get a couple bikes? We can cut down walls and move furniture, and basically have a fast travel system."
"I'll put it on our future list." Anesh said. So far, they'd spent a lot more than expected, and Anesh was pretty overtly glad that they'd already covered rent for the month. It turned out that once the two of them started making a wishlist, they could easily burn through their available funds in a hurry. As it was, they were splitting a grand total of $34 after all the costs.
Anesh gave a final look over the notes. "Alright, I'll start picking this up while you're at work tomorrow. We're taking this week off?"
"Yes." Was the flat answer.
"Okay, I'm fine with that this time. I don't get this splint off for another week anyway. Now, before I get to bed, what're we going for next time?"
James thought for a minute. "Well, I dunno if we specifically need more cash. But I think that pen, and this orb, came from when we were lost a bit farther in. So, yeah, I want to take out the tumblefeed, get through that little gauntlet area, and see what other weird stuff is in there for us."
Anesh nodded. "I agree. I want to see if we can find more magic items, and then maybe not break them. Oh, are you gonna crack that last orb?"
James nodded, stuffing his share of the bills in his wallet. "Seems like the right time." He brought out the shining blue orb, glinting a bit in the contrasting dim light of their apartment's living room. Holding his breath, he held it up at eye level between two fingers, and then brought those fingers together.
[Problem Solved : Banking]
[+1 Skill Rank : Program Use - AutoCAD]
After a second of James sitting there with his head cocked to the side in confusion, Anesh asked. "Well? What did it do?"
James silently pulled out his wallet, and opened it up. The bills he'd just stuffed in there were gone, replaced by a deposit slip. "I think... it just went to the bank for me? The thought-prompt thing said 'problem solved', so... I guess that's what these ones do? Fix problems?"
"Was going to the bank a problem for you?" Anesh asked dryly.
"Well," James said, "I didn't want to do it. So, yes?"
Anesh looked down at his broken fingers, then back up at James. He repeated this gesture again. "I get the next blue..."
"Yeah that's fair." James cut him off rapidly, laughing.
The two of them split off, Anesh to sleep, and James to relax for a while on his own. Both of them felt energized, motivated. For James, who spent a lot of his daily life fighting depression, the motivation that he felt due to this dungeon was life changing. He knew Anesh, already asleep one room over, was getting into this, but that was normal. His roommate was always motivated, always moving forward.
For him, though? He wasn’t really kidding when he said that he didn’t want to do his banking. And checking his bank account, it looked like the orb had paid his phone bill for him too. That weight off his mind, of something just done, felt like a thousand pounds off his chest. He knew he had to do it, but actually working up the energy to do so was… straining.
But here and now, with the dungeon beckoning to them every week, with new horizons and new loot and something that broke up the monotony of his shitty life?
Well, he felt it. He felt alive. More than that, he felt *normal*. He was diving into another dimension, or a warped piece of this one, fighting staplers with pen legs and CAT-5 cables run amok, he was rewriting his brain with new information every chance he got. But he felt normal.
For that? He didn’t mind spending every extra cent on gear. He wouldn’t complain about being forced to keep silent. He’d fight any inhuman monster that came their way, just to hold onto that feeling.
Though, he thought, maybe he’d call in sick from his mind numbing job tomorrow.
That feeling only went so far.
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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!