"Okay, so, we're in agreement that this is stupid, right?"
Anesh was complaining. Not without reason, he thought. After all, when one hears a mysterious moaning voice droning out a word with long, tortured syllables, typically, you don't go toward it. If he'd learned anything from his exposure to American pop culture at the hands of James' DVD collection, it was that this is exactly how someone died in a zombie movie.
After snapping their way through that thick mass of paperclip webs, they'd had a quick round of rock-paper-scissors. Since James won, he was currently leading the two of them down a curved corridor, away from what Anesh and his drone pal had spotted, in search of the voice.
James, moving ahead in a low crouch, trying to be as quiet as possible, whispered back, "Look, if it's a zombie, we need to know before we walk into one blind. If it's not a zombie, well, we probably also need to know before we walk into it blind."
It was sound logic, and Anesh didn't really have any reason to argue with it. Beyond, of course, "Yeah, but it just seems stupid to walk into the zombie on purpose."
"Coffffeeeeeee..." came the response from up ahead, down the right side of the intersection they were walking up on.
"See Anesh? Coffee. It's probably just an intern. They're like zombies anyway, and I deal with them every day." James said.
The two of them stopped for a minute. The intersection ahead of them was a three-way, like they'd been leaving signs on this whole way through. But this one was the first in a while that wasn't empty. Ahead of them, against the back wall of this new hallway, was one of the large, 90's-style vending machines they'd previously seen, sitting right next to a cliche office water cooler. The walls around the intersection weren't curved overhead like they were in the hallway, creating a spot where the lights shone down without obstruction, banishing the gloom of the hallways behind them. Overhead, a flock of printer paper fluttered by, roughly crumpled shapes propelled through the air via unknown means.
James held up an arm, stopping Anesh from moving into the little courtyard. "What're you doing?"
"I want to see if the vending machine works. We never got to check the other one." He said.
James turned to look at his friend, mouth hanging open, eyebrows askew. "And you didn't want to... check, first? Like, throw some stuff at the water cooler, make sure it's not gonna explode?"
Anesh froze. "Ah, right. I saw there was no potted plant, and assumed we were clear."
They rubbed faded bruises, without thinking about it. Their first fight with a plant was still painful to remember. James wouldn't be at all fond of the memory of being slammed into the ground if it had happened once, and it had certainly happened more than once. Anesh knew that it had been weeks, and his arm was physically fine now, but he couldn't help feel the phantom of that soreness that stuck around for days and days after the fight.
James spent a second checking his pockets for anything to throw, but only came up with his own phone and wallet. Next to him, Anesh couldn't find anything aside from blue orbs, and he'd throw his own pants before losing those. "Okay," Anesh said, "I'm gonna check the cubes here. Make sure it doesn't grow tentacles and come after us."
"Why would it...."
"Have you seen this place, James? Two out of three... no, three out of four of the sodding monsters here have tentacles." Anesh muttered as he slung his backpack onto the floor next to the door of the cubicle to the left.
James kept his eyes on the intersection as he answered softly. "How are you counting your drone there? Is it a monster, or do you qualify the rotor blades as 'tentacles' somehow?"
As Anesh started their standard looting routine on the cubicle, he thought over the question. "Hrm." He grabbed a handful of coins out of a coat pocket as he checked for a wallet. "I didn't really count him as a monster. He seems generally too cheerful to be too bad." He gave a quick poke to the computer tower under the desk to make sure it wasn't a shellaxy, before starting to open the desk drawers.
Out in the hall, James was keeping an eye mostly on the fluttering paper overhead. The strange not-birds seemed to move in jerks and starts, like a school of fish more than any actual avien. The sight of the flyers reminded him of something from a few minutes ago. "Hey, why'd you name the drone Ganesh, anyway? Isn't that going to get confusing?"
"Why would it do that?" his friend asked back as he shoved a pair of candy bars into his bag, these ones labeled 'Stuff Chucklers'.
"Well," James slowly let out as he tracked the paper flock, "I don't know if anyone's explained how language works to you, but that name is maybe one letter tops different from your name."
"I don't see how that would be a problem." Anesh called back. He opened up the large filing cabinet drawer, and saw something that made him giggle packed in among the stacks of folders and paperwork. "Oh, score!"
James looked over at the door as Anesh came out, preceded by a ratcheting sound. "What the hell did you... Oh *hell* no! Do not point that at me!" His voice went up an octave in pitch as he saw his friend come out, redoing the clips on his bag with one hand, and holding a nerf gun in the other.
"What?" Anesh asked. "It's not even one of the big ones." He said as he stepped out of the cube, brandishing the toy dart gun, freshly loaded and cocked.
James was well aware that he wasn't the most attentive guy in the world. He missed obvious details with regularity. Hell, he'd needed to bring Anesh in on this whole endeavor just to have it pointed out to him that sporting goods stores existed. He never would have had the thought that Anesh did that mass deconstruction of items would save time checking for magical traits. He also would probably have been dead to a tumblefeed, because he didn't make the connection that he could sweep traps the easy way.
That said, he wasn't *stupid*.
"Dude, so far, we've seen hostile staplers, moving sheafs of paper," he pointed upward at this at the flock above them, "and actual for-real magic items." He glared at Anesh, putting a bit of actual anger and lot of shaky nerves into his next words. "Do not. Point. The nerf gun. At. Me."
There was a moment of silence, and then Anesh pointed the gun at the ground, looking sheepish. "Yeah, didn't think of that. Sorry mate."
James nodded, then clapped Anesh on the shoulder. "No worries. Just made me nervous there for a second. You wanna test that on the water cooler?"
"Sure, yeah." Anesh said, still shaking a bit. Fighting monsters so far hadn't been a problem for him, emotionally. He'd had a few adrenaline rushes, but with the exception of when they'd been staring down that tumblefeed, pinned between it and the booby trapped break room, he hadn't really felt nervous in here. But the idea that he'd actually made his friend angry? Well, like James, he wasn't stupid, but he didn't have friends to spare around here.
But fortunately, James snapped back into casually cheerful in the blink of an eye, and Anesh internally sighed, before lining up the dart gun and letting it fly with a plastic *snap*. Both of them felt a surge of excitement as it connected with the water cooler, and then an equal surge of disappointment as they sat there staring at the perfectly mundane orange dart sitting on the floor next to the unimpressed tank of water.
"Okay, so it's probably safe." James said, and Anesh bonked him on the head with a pair of fingers. He laughed, before saying, "I'll keep watch while you check out the machine, then we'll go investigate, well, *that*."
As he was speaking, the softly droning voice returned, a quiet "Eeeemaiiilllll..." coming past them.
"Got it, I'll be quick about it." Anesh said as they approached the intersection. He moved up to the vending machine, taking a minute to have fun with the sensation of running his finger down a list of options that never seemed to end, and that never seemed to visibly produce motion from his arm. He didn't waste too much time with that, though, and quickly jammed several of the coins he'd swiped into the slot. Two rumbling thunks later and he had a pair of randomly selected drinks, which got shoved into his bag without tasting.
James looked back at his friend's activities. "Not going to drink those?"
"I'm not thirsty right now, and they might be poison." Was the retort.
"The candy might be poison, but you eat enough of that." James said.
Anesh had the good grace to look sheepish as they put up their improvised signpost and headed down the hallway, leaving the brightly lit drink machine behind and moving back into the semi-shaded gloom of the cubicle rows. "I like candy." He muttered. "Oh, and the drone is named Ganesh after the god. I thought it was clever, because it's like a scout."
James nodded as they kept moving. "Good choice. Just, you know, it's also almost your name. So don't blame me when I yell at you and the drone comes instead."
On Anesh's shoulder, Ganesh tilted it's single spiked 'eye' in a gesture that matched his own. Anesh looked sideways at it, then back at James. "Yeah, I agree with him. If you ever call me, he'll show up anyway."
"Stop agreeing with things that can't talk, Anesh."
"You're the one that has a pet spider thing that you coo at every time we come in." Anesh said, as he did a quick check of the upcoming cube on their left. They were both moving in slow walks, not quite crouching, but keeping a bit low, perhaps unconsciously due to the presence of what their brains registered as 'spiderwebs'. So, he was in a pretty good position to peek through the windows cut into the walls, rather than push his way through the layers of paper or sticky notes that made up the doors now.
He and James were using this less to look for good loot, and more to look for threats. Just a quick check through the increasingly complicated linear and spiral holes, and then moving on. They were trying to move quickly, and find the source of the words. Both of them figured they could loot on the way out, and so far, there hadn't been anything that really stood out as 'new'. Neither of them were going to complain about scrounging up a few thousand dollars, but at the same time, neither of them was going to go over every desk in detail on the hope that they found a mouse that enhanced their League of Legends skillshot ability.
This hallway was really long, too, with no real intersections they could see. James figured it probably stretched out for at least fifty cubes in length. He also figured he was spending too much time here if that felt like a natural unit of measurement. Regardless, the voice sounded like it was coming from this area, so he was on alert.
"Daaaaaamn iiiiit Jaaaaaniceeeeee"
"Okay, that was definitely close." James said.
Anesh looked up from the window he was checking. "Really? That's what you're focusing on here? Not that there's a zombie pissed at Janice?"
"I'm not a Janice." Was all James said in reply.
The voice had come from up ahead, though. Maybe two or three cubes up, on the right. Even as they were talking, they were also unslinging their backpacks, and Anesh was setting down his sledgehammer and new nerf gun in favor of pulling his hand axe off its clip on his belt. They moved up close to each other, and started very carefully checking the next few windows.
The first one was empty, of course. More so than normal. Just a single chair and filing cabinet, not even a computer or desk. A single cardboard box full of paperwork sitting on the chair. They gave that one a pass.
The second one, though, was more interesting. Through the spiral curves of the inset window, they saw a space that was a little more decorated than any previously seen. The monitor on the desk was actually on, with a screensaver of a rotating leaf. The desk itself was neatly organized, with a corded phone nestled among vertical rows of colored plastic binders. On one wall was what looked like a tapestry, a composition of folded colored sticky notes showing a bright stylized sun. On the wall opposite it, a paper mask, made out of some kind of construction paper, with its own mane of blue sticky notes trailing out of it to give the impression of either hair, or fire. James couldn't tell which.
He nodded to Anesh, and they moved to flank either side of the door. Anesh pushed back the curtain of clean white printer paper, and James slipped inside.
"This one is weird..." He whispered to Anesh. "Is the dungeon vaguely racist?"
Anesh just shrugged. "Can't say. But hell, I've seen a couple desks at your office that look a bit like this."
The mask on the wall chimed in, "Quiiiiiitinnng tiiiiime..."
Anesh and James nearly jumped out of their skins, whirling with beating hearts, axes up. Of course, it was the mask. Both of them felt a little stupid for not paying more attention to that.
"Cofffeeeeeeee breeeeeaaaaakkkk..." It hissed out, as the two of them stared at it, frozen.
They could see the paper around its eyes narrow as it watched them, the sticky note fire that was its hair twitching in a non-existent breeze. "Is it... going to roll us?" Anesh whispered.
James muttered back out the corner of his mouth, "I don't know. Play it safe, move for the door."
They began inching for the cubicle exit, Anesh going first, neither of them taking their eyes off of the mask. With his free hand, axe still held up in front of him like a cross against a vampire, Anesh pushed back the sheets of the door and tapped James through. James ducked past Anesh's axe and stepped out, also unwilling to break eye contact with the mask on the wall.
As Anesh was backing out, James stepped into the hallway and did a quick look around. And this was why, as he was stepping through the paper, he heard a loud "Oh FUCK!" from behind him.
Anesh snapped his head around at James' shout, and his eyes went wide at the sight at the end of the hall from where they came. Plodding forward on thick legs of corded cable, a single small LED shining red in the middle of its body, a tumblefeed hammered its way down the hall. Its single 'eye' fixed on James. "Where the fuck did that come from?! I thought we killed it!" Anesh yelled.
He didn't have long to think about it, as a second later, with a scream of "Innnterrrrrnnssss!" and a papery hiss, the mask impacted the back of Anesh's helmet, and he yelped as something hard started scratching along the top of his headgear, the mask dragging itself toward his face.
"Run!" James shouted.
"Help!" Anesh yelled at about the same time.
"Laaaateeee!" howled the mask shortly after.
James threw his own bag over his shoulder, grabbed Anesh's pack, and then started shoving Anesh down the corridor away from the tumblefeed. Anesh was furiously swatting at his head, trying to hit the mask off. Throwing off a loud buzzing noise, Ganesh was also flitting around, diving down to try to stab at the mask's form as it crawled over his friend, but being constantly swatted away by the strange tendrils of blue sticky notes.
"Just go! Worry about that later!" James snapped out as they ran down the hallway.
Anesh let a little panic creep into his voice as the mask found purchase over the edge of his helmet, and a small spur of what felt like bone or hard plastic drove into the skin on the side of his head above his eye. "I'm worried about it now! Just get it off!"
He skidded to a stop, and James almost tripped as the person he was pushing along came to a halt. Snarling, he grabbed at the mask, intending to just pin it to a wall. Instead, what he got was a scream out of Anesh as the spine in his skin tore a line down the side of his head, and a second later, holding the mask by its base, got a second surprise when a half dozen of those same spines sunk into James' own arm. They slid around the armguard, curving past the hard shape to almost effortlessly stab through the cloth and flesh underneath.
This, it turned out, was a bad idea. James was scared, running, worried about his friend, and now hurt. But above all else, this thing was making him *angry*. They'd spent almost an hour making their careful way to this voice, and he was hoping mostly for some kind of Big Damn Heroes moment, finding someone trapped here in need of help. Or, at the very least, a chance for some cool loot. But this? It was creeping him out, it was trying to eat his friend's face, and it was *wasting time*.
"Fuck! Yoooou!" James yelled. His hand slammed into the nearest wall, pinning the mask to it, face first. From the rear, he could see it had about a dozen of those spurs on either side of it, and the thought of that latching onto his face, sinking those in, sent a spike of horror through his chest. He didn't want to find out what happened after that.
A second later, he pinned it to the wall with his hand axe, the blade chunking into the wall behind the flimsy paper. "Reeetiiiirrmeeeennnnttt..." It moaned as the paper relaxed, and the paper fire that surrounded it went limp and colorless.
Anesh breathed heavily, grabbing his bag from where James dropped it, and then snapped up the fist-sized yellow orb from the pile of crumpled paper on the ground. "Thanks. *Now* we can run!" He said, checking how much ground the slow moving tumblefeed had gained. It was moving slowly, but deliberately, and the motions reminded Anesh a bit of how he and James were going. He saw cords moving through the doors to the cubes around it as it moved, almost like it was checking. Had it learned from their ambush earlier? It wasn't the same one; this one was smaller, and looked... newer, almost.
But there was no time to talk about it, or think about it. Its caution was their escape, and the office flew by as they ran, dripping blood behind them.
Forty cubicles in length later, they hit a wall, and had to take a corner. It was another three way intersection, and Anesh turned right almost without thinking about it. His lungs were screaming at him, his legs were throbbing, but there was no time to stop, only this flight for survival.
He almost screamed when he turned, and saw a person in the hallway.
The walls here were lower up ahead; with clusters of four or six workspaces sitting together without visual impairment. And he thought he saw people sitting in a couple of them, either typing or on phones. What he was certain he saw, though, was someone walking down the hall away from himself and James.
Someone was the wrong word.
Something. It was shaped like a human. It had two arms and two legs. It was wearing a polo shirt and black slacks. It was carrying a coffee cup in its five fingered hand. In every single detail, it was human; from the kind of messy didn't-have-time-to-shower hair to the casual checking of the smartphone in its hand.
And then it turned at the noise of their running, and Anesh met its eyes.
And it was not human.
Anesh turned before James could catch up, grabbed his friend, and fled the other way. There was no explanation, there was no time. James would just have to trust him and they could talk when they were clear.
They took two more turns into this deeper part of the office before ducking into a mostly concealed cubicle. James got a sinking familiar feeling to this whole turn of events as he pinned up some open folders over the windows of their hiding spot. Overhead, about two thirds of the cube was covered by the curving architecture of the wall, leaving a few spots open in strange patterns, and leaving the two of them in almost darkness.
"Did we lose it?" James rasped out between breaths that tore at his throat.
Anesh just slumped into the chair, bag dropped to the floor, slowly spinning around without saying anything except his gasps for breath. He raised his hand to the side of his head, and it came back slick with blood.
James leaned forward, resting his head on the wall, trying to still his breath enough to hear. "Seriously, did we lose it?" He whispered.
"Oh hell, what now?" He heard Anesh mutter behind him. It didn't sound like the tumblefeed had caught up to them, or tracked them down the hall, so he took a deep breath, and turned.
Anesh had his feet up on the chair, and Ganesh on his shoulder was revving its small motor in fear, both of them looking down at the bag, which was currently being crawled on by some... phones?
James knelt down and poked one. Yup. iPhones. "They're iPhones." He said.
To be fair, there was also one larger one that looked like an iPad. That, along with four smaller phone-sized devices, were crawling across Anesh's bag. They didn't seem to have eyes, and their screens were all on and glowing in the fairly dark room. Dozens of copper pins served as their legs, and their bodies seemed to bend and flex in ways that a normal commercial phone would snap from.
"Jaaaaames." Anesh whispered in a shaky voice. "Don't poke the bugs! God, they look like fuckin' millipedes. I hate this so much."
James looked up at his friend, cowering on the chair. "Are you seriously telling me after all that, what really gets you panicking is bugs? Also, they're not trying to murder us. I think they're just curious little things." He looked down at one of the... "I'm gonna call them iLlipedes." He said "Spelled like iPhone." He clarified. Its screen was on, and as James watched, it pulled a coin out of one of the patches on Anesh's bag, and an app on it opened.
"That's a stupid name for a stupid bug stupid thing." Anesh said, to a sharp 'ssh' from James. Hushed, his fears being ignored by his partner, Anesh settled for pushing his chair back against the front wall, as far away from the colony of crawly things as possible, his skin itching at the thought that one of them might touch him.
At this point, James wasn't listening. He was leaning in, tilting his head to peer at the screen as the ilLipede mulled over the quarter. And then, a series of lines of text started to appear. "Value : .25 USD. Composition : 8.3% Nickel, 91.7% Copper. Represented : George Washington."
"Anesh, look at this! It's my own personal fantasy of a device that gives you statistics on things!" He said excitedly, holding up the squirming iLipede, still clutching its coin, to show the screen to Anesh.
Anesh was less than amused. "Get it the fuck away from me!" Was the only response James got from Anesh, who was currently opening up the medkit from James' bag on the desk, one hand pressed against his head.
"It's not actually a bug, you know?" James set the thing back down and it scampered over to its friends, which were still poking around Anesh's backpack.
"I don't care, it looks like one. And after the mask and the suits, I'm nervous about everything in here." Said Anesh.
James paused in his attempts to get one of his new bug pals to tell him the chocolate content of one of the candy bars Anesh had in his bag and glanced over, looking worried. "Wait, suits?"
"Ah, yeah. So, as long as we're lost again and trapped deep within the dungeon, I guess now's a good a time as any to tell you..."
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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!