James stood in the middle of a massive room, polished tile floor beneath his feet. A circle around him illuminated in brilliant white light, reflecting off the floor bright enough to sting his eyes. Beyond the lit up ring around him, there was only darkness, but he could feel the void stretching on, and on, and on...
He spun around, startled, and started running. The circle of light followed his steps, or perhaps he never actually made any progress at all. He ran, and ran, and ran, and eons passed by. James felt the time grinding by, months and then years and then centuries spent doing nothing more than fleeing. His heart pounded in his ears, raw terror screaming through him.
And then he stepped out of an office cubicle. Grey hard carpet under his feet. Around him, figures moved about their day, hollow shadow suits carrying too-real coffee cups and documents in multicolored folders. He froze up, trying to act normal, and started walking down the hallway. Around him, the people who weren't there greeted him by name, friendly, if a little tired.
James kept walking. The cubicles around him dripping and twisting in ways that hurt his skin to look at. As he walked past a water cooler, he saw a pair of the empty people, drinking cups of water that never ran out, heads that weren't there drowning in water that wouldn't end.
To his right, down a side hall that went on for exactly two hundred and twelve steps, each one of them curving upward until it was in the artificial clouds overhead, he saw a man being torn apart by computer cables. Unable to even shudder in revulsion, he moved on as the blood looped down the vertical spiral floor.
He passed more and more people dying. After the fourth or fifth one, he started to recognize them. He saw Anesh first, guillotined by a paper cutter. Then his boss, screaming, dragged back through a cubicle door by a hundred hissing staplers that walked on clawed human fingers.
His mother was swallowed by a tumblefeed. An old coworker harpooned by a dozen razor tipped pencils, to lie bleeding out under James' feet as he walked. His ex was ripped in half by a false copy of themselves that shone around the edges and sung while it moved.
And then he saw his younger sister, hanging from the impossibly high ceiling by a phone cord; the handset for the phone itself laying against her chest. There were paperclips puncturing her skin where her dress didn't cover, and blood dripped into a pool beneath her. James could hear the phone ringing as he approached. His feet wouldn't stop, and soon, he stood in that red circle on the floor.
The phone kept ringing. So he reached out and picked up.
A semi-mechanical woman's voice spoke through the old black plastic earpiece. "Hello. This is a courtesy reminder that""YOU NEED TO COME BACK." The voice cut midway through to a harsh grinding noise that slammed into James' ears.
The message pulsed in his head. The lights surged, then died abruptly, screaming. A thousand things that would never look like eyes, but would also never blink or stop staring, glared down at him. The walls, now unseen, receded into the distance. He felt them being pushed farther and farther away, dragged away by an unseen force. Whispered voices came through the phone, which had shattered in his hand and now hung around his head. "you need to come back james there are people waiting for you james"
James looked down. He stood in a circle of bright white light, on a polished tile floor...
Some time later, James woke up screaming.
Anesh stumbled out of bed around 1PM. He hadn't slept well at all, and as the cobwebs cleared out of his head, he remembered vague fragments of fear and whispers from his dream. He tumbled himself onto his floor, and lay there in a sleepy daze for a few beats before dragging himself up onto his desk chair. Throwing on his bathrobe, Anesh was careful not to scatter any of the stuff spread across the surface of his desk.
He'd pushed his computer monitor back out of its normal position, and cleared pretty much everything else off. A pile of opened mail, some pens, a pair of legal pads, birthday cards, a fancy copper bowl he threw coins into, and keys, all sitting in a small cardboard box off to the side of his desk on the floor. This effort had nothing to do with being organized; Anesh wasn't an excessively organized person at all, though he did try not to let his room get too bad. No, in this case, he just needed to make sure that what he was working with didn't get mixed up with his own, normal, stuff.
Laid out across his desk were about fifty different pens and pencils, all of them carefully tagged. An annoyingly undamaged magazine about horses on the corner topped off a pile of manilla envelopes and tan folders. Five wallets lined up on the opposite side of his desk created the impression of a contained, but busy, workspace.
Anesh was testing. He'd spent last night going through each of these, looking for any kind of magical properties. All of them had come from deeper inside the dungeon, so he'd figured at least one of them would have something going on. Thinking back, he remembered sitting in the corner cubicle while James bandaged himself, snapping pens in half just to harvest the orbs, and getting a fairly high ratio.
So it annoyed him that none of these seemed to do anything. Or at least, nothing he could figure out or recognize.
He had some theories. Maybe the items had to be special in some way. Maybe he needed to pay special attention to what random stuff their eyes seemed drawn to next time? So far, they hadn't encountered any kind of treasure chests or actual physical loot drops beyond the orbs. He didn't know exactly how the dungeon decided what was going to be enchanted, or even what the purpose behind it was, but it felt like something that was important.
Right now, though, he felt like getting to his computer was important. But that wasn't going to happen until he was awake enough to pack this stuff up properly. He sighed, which turned into a rough cough as his breath caught in his dry throat.
Heading out to the kitchen for something to drink before starting his task of sweeping everything on his desk into a bin, he heard an alarming sound from down the hallway of the apartment he shared with James.
"No, no! Get down!" The voice of his roommate was coming from their kitchen and living room area, and it sounded annoyed. "Dammit, my shirt!" Anesh heard. He stopped, and took a very real moment to decide whether it was worth it to go quench his thirst, or if it would be better for his sanity to just go back into his room.
Unfortunately, curiosity got the better of him. Plodding out into the living room, he prepared himself for a worst case scenario of disaster in their kitchen again.
He did not come close to preparing enough.
"James." He croaked out, before clearing his throat and finding his voice. "James. Friend. Brother in arms. My favorite raid member."
"Anesh!" James said, jumping a bit as his roommate started talking. The broom in his hands that he was sweeping at the ceiling with clattering to the floor as he dropped it. "How're you! Good morning! Nothing to worry about here, just making some breakfast! Hi!" He rattled off words at a rapid pace, slightly out of breath.
"James." Anesh repeated. "Why James?" He swept his hand in a gesture that encompassed... everything.
The kitchen was actually more or less fine. James actually was making breakfast, and as the smell of pancakes and bacon caught up to Anesh's nose, he started salivating. And unlike last time, there wasn't flour sprayed across the floor, batter burning on the stove, or an extra half-dozen mixing bowls piled up on every surface.
There was batter on the floor, though. And on James. In fact, the batter was still dripping down on him from the ceiling. From that same battered point on the ceiling, soft jazz music was playing. Anesh just stared at the lump of raw pancake that was defying gravity for a second, before feeling his skin crawl as it started to move.
"James! Is that the fucking iLipede? You brought it home?!" He crawled back over the arm of their couch, hunkering down on the piece of furniture and keeping it as an impromptu barrier between himself and the bug. It may be twenty feet away and on the ceiling, but Anesh couldn't take any chances.
James picked up the broom again, and this time, actually got the iLipede to crawl onto the head of it. He carefully swung it back around, and picked up the little guy. "Yeah, I know you had some hesitation on letting Ganesh out, so I'm sorry I didn't ask you on this one. But I wanted to see how he identified the orb, and also he's got a music app." He set the iLipede back on the counter and started wiping it down with a towel.
"You brought a bug into our house James, this isn't okay." Anesh growled out, now setting up pillows to make himself a small couch fort.
His roommate looked over at him. "Okay, tell you what. You can test the skill orb, since I didn't use it yet, and I will give you breakfast, and in exchange, *you* get to test the coffee maker that is currently occupying a third of our counter space up here, and also not give me shit about Lilly for at least the rest of the week, until we can return them."
"I named her Lilly. She's a good little smartphone." James stated proudly, pouring pancake batter into the pan on the stove.
Anesh let out a groan. "You need to stop naming these things. They're not pets, mate."
The only response he got was laughter, and; "You're the one who took their interest in drones to a new level. Oh, hey, are you gonna ever show that guy Ganesh? He'd probably love it."
Anesh and James both went silent for a second. "Um..." Anesh started, while James just let out a quiet, "I mean..." And then they lapsed back into uncomfortable stillness. Both of them feeling a twisting pressure in their hearts, something that told them this was a bad idea.
"Did you have a dream last night?" James asked suddenly, and Anesh snapped his head up.
"Yeah." He said. "I was... running, I think? And I took a phone call, and someone told me that..."
"You needed to come back?" James finished, and Anesh nodded. "Yeah, I think I had the same thing. I'm... supremely uncomfortable with the idea that the dungeon gets to control my emotions." James flipped a couple pancakes over in the pan, catching them more or less neatly. "I feel like I want to tell Alana and JP just out of spite now. Like, giving me bad dreams and mind control is not a good way to get me on your side."
Anesh laughed. "No kidding. I've seen how you play RPGs." The tension faded a bit, though didn't fully recede. There was a lingering feeling in the air, and the jazz from the iLipede wasn't enough to make the lights feel bright enough right now on this cold winter day. "Hey, why was... ugh... Lilly on the ceiling anyway?"
"Oh!" James chuckled, "She hijacked my phone charger! I don't know if these things need power to operate, but she got kind of hyper after that. That's also when I learned about the jazz." He fired up the fancy coffee maker that Anesh had helped him lug out of his car when they'd gotten back last night. A hiss of steam and the sound of burbling liquid filled the apartment for a moment, and Anesh sunk into the pillows of the couch. He felt at home here, even with the looming bad dreams.
It was weird to have James cooking, and not burning anything to the ground, or swearing. It was weird to have soft music floating through the air. But it wasn't unpleasant at all. And when his friend dropped a plate of pancakes and bacon with what looked like homemade blueberry syrup in front of him, he got a feeling in his chest of quiet peace. Like the moment could just stretch out forever.
Then James handed him a mug of liquid, with an expectant, raised eyebrow look. "Eh? Eh? You carried that thing through a thousand feet of hostile territory, and then down three flights of stairs, and then back *up* a flight of stairs, it's only fair you get the first one. You earned it, friend!"
Anesh snagged the cup out of James' hand and glared at him. "Don't mock my coffee. I already checked it's insides after you went to bed, it's not poison. It's just a normal coffee maker."
"Could be magic poison." James grumbled, as Anesh sipped the drink. "Anyway." He said, "I also promised you this thing." He held up a small yellow orb.
Nodding, his roommate reached for it, but James pulled it back. "Oh, come on." He muttered into his cup.
"I wanna tell you what Lilly said about it first, you might be interested." Anesh was interested, yes. Unconditional information about the dungeon was a priceless commodity to him right now. Of course, he also wanted James to stop being such a wanker; at least, within a few hours of when Anesh woke up. James rambled on, though, unconcerned. "I wrote it down here somewhere. Ah, here. 'Power unit type : Memory. Operational time : 622 hrs/1k. Contains traces of : Dramatic, Violent.'"
"What the hell?" Anesh asked as he pulled the paper that James was holding over. He read it a few times, frowning. "Power unit. Well, I get the 'memory' bit, it's clearly referring to the skill part of it. Contains traces of, probably refers to the skill inside. But what the hell is operational time?"
James bit his lip. "Good goddamned question. Feels like Lilly's referring to these as batteries. And you said Ganesh ate one, yeah? What if that's all they are? Power sources?"
"Could be, probably." Anesh shrugged. "Could also be that it's got a shelf life. Or that 'hr/1k' doesn't even refer to 'hour' or... '1k', I guess. Fuckin' hell. This feels like an escape room puzzle where I picked up the clues in the wrong order. My head hurts." He took a long drink of his coffee. "Can I try the orb out?"
"What, this orb?" James said, grinning as he held it out across the table from his friend, taunting him. "Why, I suppose you..."
He got cut off suddenly as Anesh's arm blurred out and snapped it from between his fingers. The motion so fast that James felt a breeze from it. He couldn't even blink before Anesh had the orb in his hand, and popped it.
[+1 Skill Rank : Performance - Acting - Shakespeare]
"Ah! It was stage acting!" Anesh remarked as he cut into his pancakes. James just sat across the table from him, mouth hanging open, hand still up in the air. Empty. "That explains the drama and violence. Shakespeare. Heh." He shook his head.
James took a minute to breathe deeply, tapping the table. "Um... did you notice anything weird there? Anesh?" He asked.
"No, why?" Was the response from around a mouthful of pancakes.
There was, James decided, an easy way to test this. He grabbed a couple of d6's that were sitting on their living room table within arms reach. "Here, think fast." He said, and snapped both of them at Anesh's head.
Anesh didn't duck the impromptu projectile attack. Nor did he knock it aside. One second, he was holding a fork eating breakfast, the next, he was simply holding the dice between his first three fingers on his left hand. James hadn't even seen him move, just barely registering that an action had taken place at all.
"Oh." Anesh said. "Oh!" He grabbed his coffee mug and looked into it, then tipped it toward James and pointed into the empty cup. "OH!" He yelled out, joyously.
This was quite possibly the worst thing that could have happened, from James' perspective. Because now, for the rest of eternity, he was going to have to deal with Anesh reminding him that he had, one time, looted a magical coffee machine that gave stat buffs, and James was going to have to sit there and explain that while that was cool, maybe *this* time they should hurry the hell up. And Anesh was going to ignore him. Forever.
"Well," he thought as Anesh practiced juggling increasing numbers of dice with a single furiously blurring hand, "at least we've got a magic coffee machine."
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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!