A week and a half passed in a blur. The enthusiasm of the dungeon was powerful, but it wasn't really enough to carry him through two weeks of work on its own. James got up, went to work, and sort of autopiloted through hundreds of support calls. He went home, he sat in front of his computer and watched stuff on Youtube, lost a few dozen hours playing Rimworld, and only got up to eat when he absolutely had to. Every few days, he mustered up the motivation to go to the gym.
He didn't see Anesh most days, since his roommate was busy dealing with midterms, and James himself was spending most of his time shut away in his room. He ended up missing their group's weekly D&D night, which Anesh informed him later when they saw each other had shifted into a different game, since they'd gotten their D&D campaign world reduced to smouldering ash.
Over that time, the events that made James perk up and start to break out of his depressive slump mostly came over the last few days before their next planned dive. In addition to starting to feel that excitement building, that knowledge that soon he'd be risking his life for fortune and glory, they had started getting packages.
The wireless cameras came in first, and James got delegated the duty of setting them up, making sure that he could access them from his phone under hostile circumstances. That was Friday, and from that point on, their focus shifted to preparation.
While James was learning how to install and manage their survaillence grid, Anesh was teaching himself how to blow things up.
Since most commercial explosives were difficult to purchase, and their research into how exactly to *make* explosives wasn't really giving them precise instructions, they'd settled on thermite as their opening salvo in the upcoming tumblefeed fight. The reasoning was that they didn't need concussive force so much against something that didn't seem to have organs to liquify or bones to break, but the heat from the ignition of a batch of iron thermite would, hopefully, be suitable to slag enough of its cables to stop it dead.
Actually making the stuff had been worryingly easy. Anesh had simply signed up for some lab time at his college, and brought materials purchased legally at a hardware store, or from the school's supply. An actual chemistry major had actually stopped by to give him tips on making and keeping it stored safely, without prompting, and also without asking questions. This partly worried him, since Anesh still wasn't sure how far the dungeon's mental cloak extended, and he didn't know if the cavalier attitude toward making dangerous substances was a result of the other student not being able to ask, or if this was just how chemistry majors were in the wild.
Frankly, he wasn't sure which one scared him more.
Rigging them up with secure containers, ignition sources, and timers, was a bit harder. He'd tested the timers and sparkers obsessively for days, and even after assuring himself he had something functional and mostly secure, still decided not to put them together fully until they were actually in the dungeon.
The hand axes they'd ordered came in next, and got added to the growing sprawl on the kitchen table, alongside the stuff they'd already purchased locally. They shipped with the weighted net, which James spent a good fifteen minutes screwing around with and getting tangled in. By Monday, they had just about everything loaded into the bags they'd be taking in, along with one whole extra duffle just for the "food" that they'd picked up. Cases of humanitarian daily rations; functional for survival, and also just the worst thing James had ever tasted.
And all of this served to get him excited. By the time he woke up Monday afternoon, he was as ramped up as a kid on Christmas eve. The effect was a bit ruined because he had to stagger out the door to work, passing Anesh on the way who was finishing getting everything loaded up and ready.
"See you tonight?" He asked as he shoved his shoes on.
"See you tonight." Anesh said, solemnly.
The two of them made eye contact, before nodding and going back to what they were doing. A bit of determination had passed between them. And then James was out the door, and Anesh went back to trying to fit the last bundle of rope into the bulging duffel bag.
James wasn't sure what hell was like, but if he had to guess, it would be his job.
He hadn't taken a break, except to quickly hit the bathroom and drink some water. The calls just kept coming. Client after client, problem after problem. At a certain point, James realized that he had been answering questions above his support tier, mostly using Google and intuition to pull solutions out of his ass.
His shift lead was mysteriously absent tonight, and his floor manager was fielding just as many calls as he was, so he couldn't be annoyed at her. What he could be annoyed at, though, was the number of coworkers he had with him during his waking nightmare. There were a grand total of two other people on the phones with him. Two. Out of a shift that normally had twenty.
In between calls, and while half-listening to complaints and rants, he messaged his boss, asking what was going on. All he got was a response that they'd had a lot of turnover lately, and hiring wasn't replacing people fast enough.
He didn't see Anesh, and time got away from him. It wasn't until his last call ended at 3:20 AM that he was finally able to leave. As he clocked out, his boss came by his cubicle while he packed up. "Your friend is waiting for you in the break room. Is he looking for a job?"
"Not that I know of." James said as he finished shutting down his station. "What's been going on with that anyway? Why are so many people getting fired?"
His boss, a generally pretty grim lady named Lisa, just scowled. "I haven't fired anyone. People are just not showing up. If they stopped not showing up, I wouldn't even fire them right now, that's how bad it is."
He made some sympathetic noises, and extracted himself from the conversation quickly, heading to the break room. They weren't exactly late, but he didn't want to risk missing their only window.
When he got to the break room, he found Anesh sitting with their duffle bags at one of the tables, methodically shredding a magazine. A garbage can next to him slowly filling up with paper. "What." James asked dryly. "Are you doing?"
"Well," Anesh said as he stood up, shoving the magazine into his back pocket, "I had the thought the other day that if breaking the pen got us a blue orb, that maybe breaking this thing would do the same." The magazine he was shredding, James realized, was the endless pony-related zein they'd found in their loot pile over a week ago.
James looked at the ten pounds of paper in the wastebasket. "Is it working?"
"No." Anesh flatly remarked. "It won't break. It just keeps having more pages."
"Did you try tearing off the cover?" James asked as he shouldered one of the gear bags and the two of them headed for the door.
Anesh, following him out to the stairwell, said "I tried, really. It just had more covers. I'm thinking of setting it on fire later. We'll see."
They stopped. In front of them was the door. It was impressive to James, really, that the door that he saw every day at work could transform into something with so much more gravitas when it counted. It was still an off-white painted metal brick of a door, some of the paint chipped a bit at the bottom edge. It still led to plain concrete stairs. And yet, right now, it felt like the gates to El Dorado.
"One minute. You ready?" Anesh asked him.
James smiled. "I don't think I'm ever gonna be ready, but like hell am I missing this."
Somewhere in an unremarkable office building, an unremarkable door opened, and two friends stepped into a very remarkable world.
Step one, they'd planned out, was setup. Doing a quick check, it looked like nothing had been respawned, but there were a couple stapler-crabs moving around in the cubicles near the entrance. Nothing respawned, the desks they'd dragged over unmoved, but some of the incidental damage was repaired. One of the walls James had knocked a hole in during one of his first dives was patched up, as was the monitor that he'd smashed with a missed swing.
So, with that knowledge in mind, they had a plan in mind for setting up a little defensive fortification that they could fall back to. And also maybe act as a bit of a beacon for when (not if) they got lost.
First, though, they needed to get geared up. And as they stashed their bags and started pulling out everything they needed, James got to say hello to an old friend.
"Hey there Rufus! Hey! Who's a good little nightmarish spider thing? You are! It's you!"
Anesh scowled. "I wish you wouldn't encourage that thing." He said as James knelt under the desk. "Wait, what the hell is it nesting in? Is that one of our bags?"
It was, indeed, one of their bags. The scraps of which were currently hanging like a suspended hammock from a mass linking of paperclips embedded in the underside of the desk, looking like nothing less than a massive matte-black spider napping in its web.
James mock glared at his friend. "I'm not 'encouraging' him, I'm just giving him the love and affection he deserves!" He cuddled Rufus up to his face, smiling wildly as the little guy skittered its pen legs through James' hair.
Anesh was not amused. He couldn't decide, as he and James started strapping on armor, if he was more or less not-amused when the thing crawled back out of its web to bring his partner in dungeon exploration a pair of small golden skill orbs.
After they got their new armor on, and took a minute to check their straps and fittings, he got another surprise.
James snapped his head up to a strangled scream from Anesh, and a harsh buzzing on the other side of the desk. It took him a second to realize that what his friend was frantically swatting at around his head looked a little too similar to the quadcopter they'd brought in a few weeks ago.
"Woah, woah! Hang on!" James yelled as he ran over and deftly snagged the mobile drone out of the air. The rotors buzzed in his hand, but he gently set it on the desk, keeping it pinned firmly under this palm. "What the hell?" He asked, the question aimed at nothing in particular.
Anesh was frantically rubbing at his face, and James did a quick check in with him. "You okay?"
"Fine, just... startled. I don't think it was trying to kill me."
James looked at the newly alive entity. "Yeah, no kidding." It had settled down a bit, and it looked like it could 'walk' by bending its front two rotors down to crawl along the desk. It looked almost bat-like, except for the long needle-spike that extended from its front, the glass and metal of the camera reshaped into a wicked looking weapon. "If it was trying to kill you, I think you'd be missing an eye. I think it just wanted to say hi."
Anesh shook his head. "Are we starting a farm here?" He reached down, pulling one of his gloves off to give a gentle scritch to the 'head' of the drone. Well, maybe drone was the wrong word. It was a bit more alive now.
"Maybe" James said. "Either way, let's get things set up. These guys aren't gonna be a problem for now."
"Yeah, yeah. I guess I'm starting to see why you keep Rufus around. This little dude is... weirdly cute." Anesh said, letting the drone crawl up his arm to perch on his shoulder.
That resolved, the two of them started with part one of the plan. The first four cubicles were carefully dismantled, clasps undone and reattached to make a new wall. They rearranged the local walls to build themselves a semicircle fortification around the entrance. It wouldn't keep anything serious out, but it gave them a little bit of stalling power when they needed to run from something. Also, stacking the walls up to double height, maybe halfway to the too-high ceiling, gave them something they could spot from farther away.
After that, they dragged the desks over. Bracing them against the insides of the walls to give some extra stability. It also gave them a place where they could sort and stash stuff that they didn't feel comfortable bringing out into reality, and as with their original plan, it made for an easy spot to lay out weapons and armor, and avoid the question of "why do you have a hand axe in your bag".
Finally, James set up one of their cameras over the doorway, plugged it into the extended battery, and checked it on the wifi network.
"Good to go. You ready to move in?" James asked.
"All set." Anesh said, strapping the pair of thermite grenades he'd rigged up together, and attaching them gently to his belt. "Let's go kill something overlevel."
The two of them set out, James on point with the sledgehammer out, Anesh behind him and off to the side, keeping watch on the walls to make sure nothing crawled over on them. The drone, still sitting on Anesh's shoulder, scanning the walls as well, matching the movements of Anesh's head and eyes with its own jerky, mechanical twitches.
They had a goal in mind this time. They weren't here for loot or orbs; at least not at first. They were going to kill the tumblefeed, and clear this area of anything lethally threatening. After that, they'd reassess. See how they felt, then decide if they wanted to go further in.
As they passed through the tunnels of cubicles, getting to the point where the walls were curving overhead and vines of paper dangled from the walls, James spoke softly. "Do you ever get the feeling that we're all just tiny little things, barely holding onto a giant ball of furiously spinning rock?"
"You pick the weirdest times to open up emotionally." Anesh said wryly.
James snorted. "I mean, yeah, but also this was a lead in to me saying that I think the gravity here is a little lower than normal."
"You pick the weirdest times to share useful tactical information." Anesh said in the same tone, and they both had to hold back laughter.
Ten minutes of careful travel later, they were within sight of the breakroom. Just down the hall, the breach into the brighter light, smell of coffee, and tile floor yawned. There was no sign of their prey. Nodding to each other, they moved to the cubicles on either side, drawing their axes.
Five minutes of work later, trying to be as quiet as possible, they'd each cut a doorway through to the next cubicle hall. Exit routes were on both their minds, neither of them wanted to be trapped again. In each of the halls they cut into, and at the doorway looking into the break room, they placed one of the wireless cameras. Then, they came back to the entrance, and settled in one of the cubes slightly farther away to wait.
"...Piece of paper?"
James grinned. "You got it!"
Anesh sighed. "I am so mad at you right now." He leaned back and stretched his arms. "How is this boring? Shouldn't we be drowning in hoards of monsters by now?"
James just shrugged. "Maybe we got unlucky the last two times?" He was looking down at his phone, watching the cameras. "Gah. This is...." He trailed off.
He and Anesh both looked up. They heard the same thing, before the cameras saw anything; a sound like pattering water, like a handful of beads being poured out onto wood. But on and on and on. The two of them tensed up, and James locked his eyes on the camera.
"Ready?" He asked.
Anesh nodded. "Ready."
A minute passed, and then another, and then, just when they were about to scream from the tension, James saw movement on the camera. Tendril cables, first a few, then a hundred, hauled themselves and the main mass over the wall into the break room. The previously repaired room got itself a new chunk taken out of a table as one of the coffee bombs was knocked a bit.
They waited as it curled up on the floor, nestling in under a table. James passed off his phone and stepped out into the hall. Anesh readied one of their grenades, as James stepped up to the doorway.
"Hey, hentai tentacle monster! How's it going!"
The reaction was instant. In a split second, the coils of cables spread out into a viney web on the floor. Then, the body started rolling, dragging itself toward James at a pace that reminded him more of a Japanese horror movie than anything else.
So, he did what he really wanted to, and also what the plan called for. He turned and fucking booked it.
Sprinting down the hall, he flew past Anesh's hiding spot, got a couple cubes more, then turned and slid to a crouching stop at the corner, axe out.
The tumblefeed drew its bulk down the hallway, also rolling right past Anesh. It paused about twenty feet in front of James, coiled tendrils of cords slamming into the floor, smaller cables latching onto the walls around them, as it hauled itself up to full height. It didn't quite dwarf the walls around them, but the walls around them were over twelve feet tall, and it came close to matching them.
"Okay friend," James said softly, breathing steady. "just sit nice and still for a second." They weren't sure if these things had forward facing vision, but it shouldn't make too much of a difference.
Behind the beast, he caught a glimpse of Anesh in a pitchers stance, and then, a spray of fire.
The improvised grenade had landed right among the tangled mass of the tumblefeed, and five seconds later, lit off exactly as planned, and started burning. It was like a forge come to life; a spray of sparks and temporarily molten metal that fountained down around the monster. It let out a scream, thousands of tiny mouths at the ends of cables hissing in unison as one by one they were cut off with fire and heat.
And then, the thermite burned out, and it wasn't dead. Dozens, maybe hundreds of dead cables left a carpet of dross on the floor behind it, and it was thrashing wildly, but it was still alive.
Anesh didn't wait to prime the other grenade and throw it into the still writing mass of cords. And again, a few seconds later, a wave of heat poured forth as the left side of the tumblefeed sloughed off in a shower of melting metal and burning plastic.
A noxious odor filled the air, burnt plastic and carpet, the feeling of crackling electricity and ozone. And still, it wasn't dead.
But it wasn't nearly moving fast enough to stop its hunters. James and Anesh moved in, Anesh bringing down his axe on every clump of cables that strayed too far out from the central mass. James grabbed the pair of bolt cutters from where they'd left them at the end of the hall, and waded in. Pushing them in to whatever point seemed most like the core, and snapping them closed with arm straining effort. Flailing CAT-5 cables with spined snapping mouths tried to find purchase on either of the armored attackers, and James got a couple of gashes down his face before either he or Anesh could take out the troublesome parts. But their boots and hardened limb guards let them almost casually knock away anything that got too close.
And then, all of a sudden, James planted his boot on something solid in the middle of the mess. Aiming for the lump, he jammed the bolt cutters in, and with as much strength as he could muster, snapped them shut.
And it died.
The whole thing gave a shudder, stray cables sticking straight up in the air, and then, nothing. It all went flat, curled up like a withered weed.
"Well!" James said between labored breaths. "That went really well! We didn't even have to use the net!" He pointed up to the net they'd rigged up, ready to be dropped when the rope just to his left was cut.
Anesh knelt down in the smouldering remains of their target. "Oh yeah. And hey, how about this?" He stood up, holding something large in his left hand. His glove had gotten torn off at some point and his hand was dripping blood from a bite mark. But what he was holding is what caught James' attention.
It was the size of a grapefruit, and it was glowing a fierce, emerald green.
"Dibbs." James said. Anesh laughed, and then shrugged.
"You know what?" He said, "Go ahead." He lobbed the orb over to James, who caught it with a startled expression. Before James could ask, he explained, "I've got dibbs on the next, like, dozen blue ones, okay?"
"Deal." James said, and broke the piece of power in his palm without a second thought.
[Local Area Shift : Internet speed increase, +32Mbps Down/+18Mbps Up]
[+4 Skill Ranks : Artillery - Indirect Fire]
"Oh holy shit, the internet got better!" James yelped out.
Anesh looked at him with wide eyes. "What, like, everywhere? Did we just bootstrap humanity by one tech era?"
James got a disappointed look on his face. "Local area? Like.... in here?" He looked around theatrically at the extradimensional office they were in. "...Why? Why didn't I wait on that? God dammit. Oh, also, I know how to hit a target two miles away with a mortar. But that's really not enough to stem the disappointment. We could've upgraded our internet!"
"Go back to the mortar thing?" Anesh asked.
James shook his head. "Another not so useful combat skill. Four ranks in field artillery."
"Four. Best so far."
The two of them took a second to breathe, just enjoying the feeling of victory singing in their veins. Anesh broke the silence a minute later. "Okay, it smells like a tire fire here. Are you up to moving on? I'm feeling okay, but I need to get a bandaid on this" He held up his hand, showing off the bloody mark.
"Yeah," James said. "Let's get patched up, and see if we can find anything good around here before we go deeper."
Twenty minutes later, James was finishing up putting medical tape on the bandages on his face, and Anesh was methodically snapping pens in half. They'd taken the chance to move through the break room while the minefield was clear, and James had, with Anesh's permission, taken the opportunity to surprise the petulant potted plant with a sledgehammer strike, securing another pair of skill orbs. After that, they'd set up in a cubicle, broken out a medkit, and started fixing their minor injuries.
And after James had gotten Anesh bandaged, Anesh had set about testing everything in the cube for magical properties.
But that was taking too long, and he didn't really want a pencil that only he could see or a pack of sticky notes that never ran out. So, he went to the simpler solution; just start snapping things in half, and see if anything came out.
By the time James finished with his cuts, Anesh had a pile of three tiny blue orbs. This earned him a snorted laugh, and a smile. "I'm glad you're catching up to my debt to you so fast," James said, "but what if one of those was cool?"
"We were never gonna find out anyway." Anesh replied. "Now! Ready to go? Let's get moving. I wanna see what's farther in."
They got to their feet, stretched, rechecked their armor, and then, started moving. There were more corners here, more intersections. They left signposts stapled to the walls every turn they took, taking extra care to leave a trail of breadcrumbs. As they moved, they took only the most obvious loot, prioritizing cash, and leaving everything else. They could grab it on the way out, they didn't want to worry about extra weight on the way in.
Half an hour later, they hadn't encountered anything new. The worst they'd seen was a vending machine flanked by a pair of plants, which they'd decided to skip for now. They'd seen some stapler-crabs, but none of them had tried to ambush or challenge the team, instead making obvious movements, and keeping their distance.
Anesh had wanted to go hunting, but James stopped him. As far as he figured, if something wasn't instantly hostile, he didn't want to break that peace. He'd played in too many D&D games where anything that looked even a little "evil" was fair game, and it never sat well with him. He may be a greedy bastard, out to loot this place for all it was worth, but he wasn't a monster.
The architecture around them continued to shift in small ways. The walls, now towering overhead, started to have small windows and parapets cut into them. They were seeing doorways covered in sheafs of sticky notes, and in some places, they were having to take time to disconnect the paperclip webs that the stapler-crabs used as their nests, when they were strung across the hallway.
It was while James was bolt-cuttering his way through one of those webs that Anesh, keeping watch, felt something at the edge of his sense. He tried looking around, but it wasn't anything he could see. It was then, as he felt a bump on his cheek, that he had an idea. He poked the little drone, still nestled on his shoulder. "Ganesh. Go give me a good view, kay mate?"
The small mobile machine, trilled a bit, then fired up its rotor blades and launched itself into the air. Anesh pulled his phone out, and found the wifi signal quickly, pulling up the camera app that let him see what his drone was seeing. And it worked! He could see, almost at a higher quality, as it flew around corners and over walls, giving him a good aerial view of the area.
And there ahead of them, past one of the four way intersections, something changed. The ceiling suddenly cut down to a normal height, and the whole thing on the outside was what looked like blue and white tile. "Okay you delightful little wasp, get back here." He muttered, and was surprised to see the viewpoint change almost instantly as the drone responded and headed back. "James!" He called out. "I think I found something!"
As James finished off the last paperclip web line, the two of them both heard a whispered voice float through the air above them. "Meeeeeetinggggggggg..."
"Yeah," James said. "I think I found something too."
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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!