"Oh dammit all." James muttered a little too loudly.
Anesh looked over from the small side table where they'd dropped his football armor, and laid out the medical supplies that he was using. He'd gone through so many packets of burn gel that his kit had run out and he'd asked to dip into James'; the scored red flesh from the shellaxy hoard's concentrated laser fire demanded pretty immediate attention, no matter how tired they both were. Even for Anesh, whose skin was a rather dark brown to begin with, burn marks showed up as angry pink marks. Thankfully, neither of them had any of the beams focus on them long enough to get the serious signs of third-degree burns, but even without the melted flesh and blackened blisters, James still felt pretty dramatic pain from where the plastic of his armor had melted away and poured down on his shirt.
"What's up?" He asked of James in a weary voice, as he shoveled the green orbs into the pack.
James pulled something out of the bottom of his backpack, and thumped it onto the table with a metallic clunk. "You know what would have been super helpful? Magic coffee." He said, showing off the thermos that they'd both placed in the bottom of their bags along with their water bottles.
His friend just looked over flatly, taking a good ten or twenty second to process what James had said. "Oh." He went back to taping a piece of gauze to himself. "Oh! Bloody hell, why didn't we use that?" He said as his brain caught up to James' words. "I mean, we were a bit busy, but, this is sort of what we packed it for."
Shaking his head as he pulled out more burn gel to hand off to Anesh, James just sighed. "Well, I guess we'll have to use it next time. Unless... I mean, do you want to keep going?"
"I don't see why not." Anesh said as he put his armor back on over his scorched shirt, taking extra care when settling it onto his shoulder where the cloth had burned away and singed his skin. He winced a bit as he dropped it down a bit too hard. "I mean, this is right painful and all, but these are first-degree burns. Second at worst. If we go to a hospital, they're going to tell us to keep it covered, apply burn gel every couple of days, and only come back to the ER if it gets infected because we didn't do those things. We don't need medical attention."
"We've only got four hours left, give or take a bit." James said as a rebuttal.
Anesh shrugged. "So we take another hour to explore, and head back then. I mean, this is a great haul for the week, sure, but..." He trailed off, and looked over at James.
The look he had on told James all he needed to know, and he understood at once. Anesh felt the same way he did; this place, this dungeon, it promised them something. It offered a lot of things: money, power, knowledge, really weird candy, all the office supplies they could carry, and magical coffee machines. But it also offered something else entirely.
Here is what James knew, in that moment: That he was ordinary. That his life had never once been on a good track, and even now that he had a bit of stability from his job, he wasn't going anywhere exciting. He knew that he was, in a very real way, doomed. He was doomed to work a crappy job for most of his life, maybe getting promoted when he was forty to a management position he'd hate, or maybe dying of something stupid before that. He didn't have a plan for retirement, and couldn't bring himself to care about his own well being enough to make one. There were enough days when it took far too much effort to get out of bed, and far too little effort to think it would be easier if he were simply dead.
And then there was this place. This, for lack of a better term, dungeon. It had burst into his life by accident, and it had taken over every moment of his thought processes since he'd realized what exactly he had on his hands. It was big, it was exciting, and it didn't just distract him from his problems. It gave him agency; it gave him control of his own destiny.
It was the thrill of exploration, the sense of excitement at seeing what was around the next corner. The satisfaction of testing themselves against all the dangers this place had to throw at them, and coming out alive. It was the feeling of being something more. Something that was just a little bigger than getting through life doing tech support, or struggling with college.
He looked into Anesh's eyes, and saw that reflected back at him. Maybe not exactly the same quiet desperation he felt, but certainly the spirit of adventure. The will to not just survive, but thrive. "But you want to see what's next." James quietly finished the sentence that Anesh dropped.
They stood there looking at each other for some time. There was a lot that could be said, but nothing that needed to be spoken.
"So!" James broke the silence with an overly enthusiastic tone and a clap of his hands. "Want to go check out the suspicious towering tiled visage in the distance that looks an awful lot like it has a Dark Souls boss fight in it?"
"Fucking hell, I thought you'd never ask." Anesh grinned back at him.
The duo checked armor, made sure their weapons were in place, and repacked their bags while Ganesh did some quick recon for them down the path forward. Anesh was pretty sure that there wouldn't be any more space-time traps nearby, but James wasn't as confident.
"If it can make one, it can make a dozen." He said.
Anesh had just replied, "If it could make a dozen, you wouldn't have survived to invite me here, and I'd be mysteriously down a roommate."
James couldn't really argue with that. The him of even just two months ago was almost a different person entirely, in terms of what he was capable of. If he'd walked into that twisted hallway, he would have made right turns until he died. The thought made him shudder.
As he and Anesh rested for a bit, set up in an open area in a square of cubicles, they also discussed what to do with their rewards so far. It was, as Anesh had said, a great haul for the week. Five green orbs, though James couldn't help but think these ones were a bit smaller than the one from the tumblefeed. Still, he and Anesh planned to do some experiments with them.
"We use two at the park near our place, two at the coffee shop, and if none of those do anything horrible, the last two at our place. This one, and the one we still have at home." Anesh laid out the groundwork.
James thought for a second as he reclined on a trio of rolling office chairs that he'd turned into a couch; putting skills from his job to use. "What if they're all just good? Wouldn't it make more sense to test fewer outside, and use them on our place once we're sure they aren't going to, I dunno, set it on fire?"
This got him a glare from Anesh. "No. No chances. I like that apartment, and I'm not moving again. If I had the option, I'd make us use a hundred of these things before we even brought one into our city. We'd go out to the desert and use them all one at a time and see how long it took for things to go wrong."
"Does this state even have a desert?" James asked, tangenting off from the main topic.
"Of course it does. It's technically a 'high desert', but it's still... how do you not know this? You've lived here your whole life, I'm from another continent. Come on, mate." Anesh replied. To which James just let out a soft laugh, before cutting himself off as he realized how sore his throat and lungs were.
The smaller orbs, they decided to use some of right away. They had seven of the little yellow skill orbs piled up, and James was holding onto the blue they'd found. Anesh had apparently left his own blue orbs at home, leaving one for Lilly to analyze for him.
"You got over your fear of bugs!" James congratulated him. "This place *is* refining you!"
"No," Anesh snapped back, "I left it on the table, and hoped the damn thing found it interesting. I'm... look, I'm not afraid of bugs, it's just unsettling, and I don't want to touch it or interact with it at all, okay?"
James laughed as they sorted out the skill orbs. Two for himself, three for Anesh, James would also use the blue now in case it could help, and Anesh had another orb to feed to his drone when he came back. The others, they'd hang onto in case they found another iLipede in here, or when they got home to give to Lilly. "I just want more information, more data points." Anesh muttered. "The only problem is I don't want to interact with anything that has that many legs to get it."
James stifled a smile and cracked into his orbs, not wanting to make his friend feel too picked on. As the soft colored smoke escaped the popped beads, though, he let his grin show through. No need to hide the joy he felt from this part.
[+1 Skill Rank : Games - Chess]
[+1 Skill Rank : Gardening]
[Problem Solved : Got a good night's rest]
[+1 Skill Rank : Lucid Dreaming]
"Well, that's..." James listened to the echos in his thoughts for a second, and then blinked a few times. The world seemed a little brighter around him. Experimentally, he stretched his arms, taking a deep and satisfying breath. He stood up, stretching further as he spoke to Anesh. "The skills aren't anything special, but the blue one gave me 'a night of sleep'. I feel... pretty good. Throat isn't sore, legs are though. But, like, in a good way. Anyway! What did you get?"
Anesh just let out an exasperated noise as he held up one of the skill orbs for Ganesh to pluck from his fingers. "Those blue ones are too convenient. We need to find a way to get more of them. Eight hours of sleep? James, that's the closest thing we've seen to a healing potion. But yeah, let's see what's in these..." He gently, one by one, crushed the remaining orbs in his fingers.
[+1 Skill Rank : Tae Kwon Do]
[+1 Skill Rank : Repair - Computer]
[+1 Skill Rank : Management - Small Business]
"Anything?" James asked, not really expecting a great answer.
Anesh just shrugged. "Nothing really impressive. A martial art level, though. You got one of those, right? How is it?"
James mirrored the shrug as he helped Anesh to his feet. "It's kind of cool. I move a lot easier now. Like, I just feel like I have a lot more... what's the word... presence? I'm aware of where my feet are, all the time. It's great. Though I'm also weirdly aware that I'm not strong or fast enough to do all the things I know how to do."
"Mmh. Yeah, I get that." Anesh said as he thought about it.
The two of them, one now more rested than the other, but both of them back on their feet, were finally ready to move on. Securing their packs, with James taking special care on the pouch with all the greens, and with both of them opting to keep their coffee canisters on the outside of their bags this time, they got moving.
Moving out of their little clearing, they quickly got back into row after row of towering cubicle walls around them. Though the overhangs weren't as bad here, and the glaring artificial white light beat down on them as they walked. Ganesh would occasionally lift off of his human's shoulder to land on one of the strange wall protrusions and peek around, or just to show them which corner to take at an intersection. They kept marking their turns with sticky notes, refilling the supply from nearby cubicles whenever they started to run low.
This area seemed strangely devoid of anything that was actually trying to kill them. It had been about thirty minutes of walking, at least half a mile, and nothing had jumped them. They'd encountered another shellaxy in one of the cubicles where they'd stopped for a sit and some water, but it wasn't one of the upgrades, and had just eyed them warily until they left. And they'd left fairly soon, after spotting it.
Neither of them were keen to stick around the mobile computers, at this point.
On they walked, keeping an eye out for anything dangerous or shiny. As they moved down a particularly long hallway, James caught sight of another flock of bright white printer paper, fluttering by overhead. This one larger than any they'd seen before. He nudged Anesh and pointed up, and the two of them watched as thousands of sheets of paper, in various folded and crumpled patterns, rippled by in the air. A strange flowing hiss coming out of their multitude as they passed.
"I want to catch some of those sometime. I want to see what happens if I use them for origami." He whispered to his friend as they watched the streams of flying material go by. Anesh just nodded silently, caught up in the view.
As the flock finally finished passing overhead, they continued down the hall. "Ah, the now-classic 'vending machine and death plant' combo up ahead. What's the play here?" James asked coyly.
Sure enough, the hallway ended in another T-intersection. The two of them stopped a few cubicle doors before it to take a minute to stretch and plan. "Well," Anesh said, "we could just smash the plant as a preemptive strike. I don't really want to harvest the whole vending machine when we're this far in, though. I know I push for buying those carboys, but we are well over two miles away from the entrance. Also, there's only about an hour left in our time buffer before we need to go back." He gestured at the plant. "You're rested up, right? Here, take this. I'll wait patiently." Anesh finished with a small smile as he handed over his weapon.
James gave him a hammed-up glare. "I feel like you're taking advantage of this situation." He said as he hefted the sledgehammer.
He and Anesh checked the few cubicles beforehand, just to make sure there were no surprises. There were a couple desk lamps that James was almost certain were traps, but they didn't see anything that was planning to come out and kill them if they made a bit of a racket. So, he gripped the hammer, took long steps forward, and tried to time it so that he would get the perfect swing on the pot of the giant plastic fern sitting next to the vending machine.
He didn't, though. And he knew about a step and a half ahead of time that he was going to have a bad angle. Still, he stepped in, unwilling to stop now since he was almost sure that he'd seen the fern twitch. As the hammer came down on the ceramic pot, hitting it less than dead on, the last thing James thought before the nearest frond lashed out at his throat was that this would have been so much easier if the potato gun hadn't exploded.
And then there was violence.
The fern stiffened as the pot cracked down the side, but didn't break. One of its fronds jutted out toward James like a blade from a fencer, jabbing into his armor padding as he jerked backward just in time. James backpedaled a couple steps, keeping his feet firmly placed as he ducked another high stab aimed at his eyes. It was only because he put some distance between them and managed to keep his eyes open that he saw the second frond coming in from the side. It was just as long as the first, but had to bend a bit, so the strike wouldn't have as much force. But it was still razor sharp, and James wanted nothing to do with that.
He shuffled right, making the plant bend farther to get more than one frond focused on him at once. It wobbled and swayed in a breeze that was not there, artificially green leafy arms weaving back and forth and occasionally fliting out to try to cut into its opponent. James was having no part of it, though, instead keeping his distance, ducking strikes, and getting a feel for how fast it was. His footwork wasn't perfect, and he couldn't seem to safely get into range to land another hammer hit, but he wasn't losing his balance either.
Grinning to himself, he waited for it to move in with two hits at once, and as soon as it did, hopped backward. The fern overextended, and as its flexible frame snapped it back into place, James took one large stride forward, and whipped the hammer around with a single hand on the shaft. The twenty pound metal head shattered a neat hole in the side of the pot, a spiderweb of cracks radiating out from around it, as James lost his grip on the handle and ducked backward, one of the fronds finally getting past his movements and slicing a thin line on his forehead.
He fainted forward, going for the hammer again, but the plant was there to intercept him. He had hoped that the risky strike would kill it, but now he was left without his main weapon, and no time to draw his axe when he was busy trying to get out of range of this thing. He twisted and dodged another razor sharp line of leaves, and then realized he'd put himself too close to the plant itself. He saw the strike coming, and had only a brief moment to process his mistake before it hit.
And then, right before the thing sliced into James' neck, Anesh slipped in and took off the base of one of its fronds with his axe. Ganesh lifting off from his shoulder as he slid by, diving onto the other frond that was turning toward the new threat, and stabbing at the base of it repeatedly until it, too, wilted backward with no stem to support it.
James didn't waste time. He yanked the hammer out, planted his feet, and took a swing that would make a professional golfer proud. The tinkling sound of shattering ceramic filled the air with sound. If James had dropped a plate at home, the sound would make his heart sink, but now, it filled him with vigor. Kneeling next to the fern, Anesh slammed his gloved hand into the ruined base of the pot, and tore out a root system knotted with small fleshy red growths.
As soon as he had done so, the plant just dropped. Its fake plastic greenery twisting up on itself, fern fronds drooping and turning a bit brown and withered. James and Anesh both let out a sigh as the golden skill orb manifested above its corpse.
"That was harder than I expected." James said. "Where were you when I missed the first swing?" He demanded of Anesh in a voice that was a bit harsher than he meant.
Anesh stood up, brushing dirt and ceramic dust off himself. "There was a couple of striders. Sorry. Ganesh warned me when you needed help, though. You looked like you were doing really well."
"Yeah, I... think I finally found the flow of movement, I guess? Also, striders?"
"Stapler spiders. They're less like crabs now, and I wanted a better name for them." Anesh held up a couple small skill orbs. "Okay, your choice. The big one from the plant, or these two?"
James picked up the larger orb from the plant. "I feel like I earned this one. Also, I'm going to forget to call them striders constantly." He said as he cracked the skill orb.
"It's fine, I will too." Anesh said, popping his as James felt his thoughts rearranged.
[+2 Skill Ranks : Medical - Bioethics]
James cocked his head. "Well, that's kind of a weird one. Certainly gives a much wider perspective on... a lot of legal stuff, actually. Hm. Hey Anesh, have any of your skills mixed with each other? Like, that you know of? I think this one and the government one are sort of linking up."
"No..." Anesh said, not really paying attention, as he looked at his own acquired skills.
[+1 Skill Rank : Perception - Pattern Recognition]
[+1 Skill Rank : Anatomy - Weak Points - Human]
James looked over at his friend. "What's up? You've got a weird look."
"James, we kind of assume that all these skills are, in some way, tied to things that people in your office know, right?" Anesh asked slowly.
"Yeah, I mean, the weirder ones are usually explained by the extreme cases of people who have side jobs or hobbies, as far as I know. And a lot of these skills have been business related." James said as the two of them picked back up and kept moving. They had maybe a couple minutes of break, with Anesh getting them a couple juice drinks out of the vending machine, which James was sipping as they walked.
Anesh nodded as his drone sped forward to check the next corner. The tower of blue and white tile was visible now, very close by, through the holes in the overhanging walls. They'd be at their destination soon. "Well," he said, "I think someone in your office is either a medical student, or a murderer. Maybe both?" He said placatingly, holding up his hands like he was weighing his options as James turned to look at him. "I mean, I got an anatomy skill. Fine. But the subtype of 'weak points, human' is... really specific. And now I know where to hit a guy with a hatchet to make sure they don't get back up, and that's really not okay."
"Yeeeesh." James said as they walked on. "That's unsettling. I never really thought about it before, but there probably are a lot of skills that we actively wouldn't want to have, huh? Like, imagine getting a skill for just 'murder'."
"Exactly." Anesh agreed. "It's not... it doesn't make me feel good."
"We need to spend more time figuring out stuff about the orbs." James said. "We know Rufus can... process... them? I don't know the word, and I don't want to say 'extrude' again. But if you can, I guess, repackage a skill, maybe you could do that? We could use the unsavory ones as power for the little guys, and keep the ones that make sense for ourselves. I don't think they use them as skills at all, anyway."
Anesh sighed. "That would be great. Thanks. I just, you know, I don't want to know how to off people." James patted him on the shoulder reassuringly. "That's a good idea, though. We know sod all about these things." He followed up as they hung another sticky note signpost. "Like, we were talking about testing the greens. We kinda get what they do, they improve places."
"Right, and the orange ones... give us stuff?" James kind of trailed off. "Okay, not enough data, right." He said as Anesh made a non-commital noise.
The two of them stopped to go through a cubicle that had a purse sitting out on a desk, just doing a quick check for cash for their adventuring-and-rent fund. "What about the blues?" Anesh asked as an open question. "They tell us 'Problem solved', but..."
"But what constitutes a problem, what counts as a solution, what does it mean when it applies solutions to things that aren't problems, what is the relative strength of a given solution, and why the hell did you get precognition from one of them?" James said as he pulled a couple hundred bucks and a pair of sleek sunglasses out of the purse.
Anesh gave a short laugh from his guard post at the door. "I mean, that's the list of questions, yeah."
James came out and they kept onward. "Well, maybe we can..." he trailed off as they took a corner, pushing through a cascading curtain of paper and sticky notes. And then, there, in front of them, was the spire. Their goal this day. Blue and white tile with clean mortar. It stretched up to the ceiling, cutting off their view of the surrounding false sky. Up close, James could see a thin mist surrounding the lower half of it where it sat in a clearing at the end of this hallway.
Down at the base, recessed into the gleaming bicolored wall, the friends could clearly see two doors. They were a light brown, in stark contrast to the rest of the structure. On each one, there was a small black and white iconographic sign in the middle of the door.
"Gents" and "Ladies".
The duo looked at the doors for a while. "It's a..." Anesh started.
"Nope!" James cried out, throwing his hands in the air and turning on his heel. "Nope! I'm glad we got here, but I'm not doing this today!"
"Wait, hang on!" Anesh called him back. "I know this is stupid, but let's at least take a look inside. We've got..." He checked his clock. "Okay, we're pretty low on time. Yeah. Ganesh, you can remember the way back here, right?" The little drone did a bobbing nod. "Okay, great. James! Wait up!" He hurried to catch up with his friend.
Neither of them were interested in going into this office's bathroom today. After fighting their way through miles of dungeon, punching out of a spatial trap, experiencing burn wounds and cuts and scrapes, and taking a hike longer than either of them were used to, to see the reward at the end of the tunnel be a bathroom door was kind of demoralizing.
They'd be back, of course. When they had more time, and, James thought, had waterproofed their phones. But right now, it seemed like a good idea to head home for the day, taking what they'd earned with them. It was just, at the moment...
Neither of them wanted to take this shit from the dungeon.
When James said that one out loud to Anesh, he'd cringed so hard James was afraid he'd rupture something. "I don't know whether to punch you or kiss you for that pun." Anesh had said.
"Please don't punch me." James responded as they backtracked quickly over their trail.
"Hey, before we go, we should actually make use of this coffee." Anesh suggested, ignoring James' quip. "Did you want to try disarming one of the bulbs with it?" He said.
James did. A lot, really. Between his natural gamer attitude and the overlay of skill information on his mind that informed him about rule sets and helped him connect the dots in patterns like this, he was almost certain that there were more orb types. There were too many gaps. If there were only a few orb types, they could have been specified, without a pattern. But there were too many for that, and they had constant functions in the dungeon. The skill orbs themselves were used for the smallest 'monsters'. The green ones were... just bigger? James was still working on that. The blue ones were 'magic' items, and the orange ones distorted space. So far, so good.
But the respawning traps? Those hadn't dropped an orb yet. The exploding coffee cups, they'd never really 'disarmed', just triggered. Speaking of, as he thought of the cups, he poked Anesh. "Hey, remember the coffee mines? I was going to call those 'rocket java', after the blend, but did you know there's a coffee called 'blast roast'? I'm not sure which one to go with, and you're the names guy. What do you think?"
Anesh peered around the corner they were about to take. "Blast roast. I mean, how can it not be that? Also, what's with you and puns today?" He asked as they hustled back to the door, checking cubicles for any lamps that they could test.
"I've been feeling good today." James said.
He was, too. He just felt a little spark of energy, and not just because of the dungeon. Though a lot of it was that. He was interested to test out the theory that every extension of the dungeon's weirdness, for lack of a better term, had an orb associated with it. He just felt like he was on the right path.
They made it back to the door in about half an hour, deciding not to stop at Anesh's insistence. He wanted to get back and start organizing for their exit, while James could circle the outside again to find a lamp. Though as they unpacked the stuff and James took a drink of the still-kind-of-warm coffee, he pestered Anesh while he finished the drink.
"Doesn't really feel right, they don't catch fire." Anesh said, responding to James' idea for a name.
"The glass from them could start a fire. What about... I dunno... doom... bulbs." He staggered off. Anesh stared at him, pausing in his effort to rearrange their bags and note how many things they'd used from their medkits. "Yeah, that one got away from me. Come on! I know you already thought of one, just tell me!"
"Gaslights." Anesh said simply, going back to carefully stripping off his armor. "Because they're..."
"Yeah, I get it. Okay, fine. I still like burnouts, but we'll go with yours for now. Anyway, I'm gonna go find and disarm one." His voice started to speed up, as the coffee kicked in. Anesh still wasn't sure if this was just how James reacted to caffeine in general, or if the enhancement properties of this drink in particular were what caused it.
Either way, Anesh thought, he couldn't really tell James that they should leave. He, personally, was exhausted. But his friend had essentially gotten a free eight hours of sleep, which was annoying, since Anesh kinda just wanted to leave, but also didn't want to begrudge James a few more tries at loot.
The biggest problem with this place, as far as Anesh was concerned, was the time dilation. Eight hours here to three minutes outside. Okay, cool, they could do a lot in here and never be missed outside. But the flip of that was, every Tuesday, his sleep schedule got fucked right up. He came back out expecting it to be mid morning, only to find it was still 3 AM, and his body was *not* pleased with how this had been going. If they could find, and easily identify, a lot of those sleep orbs, it would solve this problem. But it was hard enough to get the damn things in the first place.
While he waited for James to come back, he watched Ganesh playing with Rufus. The two of them seemed to be getting along really well, and he smirked to himself as he realized that he sort of thought of Ganesh as half kid, half pet. But watching them made him think of how Rufus could manipulate the orbs, which in turn made him remember his unsavory skill from earlier, and that put him in a bit of a sour mood for a bit.
He was interrupted by James jogging back to their fort, still looking fresh and bright eyed. This almost gave Anesh a spark of angry frustration, but then he felt a sort of peaceful empathy come down on him. James was, for all his faults, his friend, and Anesh wasn't gonna be mad over something as petty as the random drop rate. "How'd it go?" He asked.
In response, James just started laughing madly, holding up a bright red orb in one hand, and a lightbulb in the other. "I was right!" He shouted, startling Rufus and Ganesh out of their play wrestling. The two creatures crawled over to the edge of the desk as James came in. "All I had to do was unscrew the bulb without it seeing me! I am a genius!" He yelled, and Anesh gave him a mock round of applause; noting while he clapped that James' armor had a few dots of cooling glass on it. Clearly, he'd needed a few attempts.
"Well, congrats, friend. Do you want to go get something to eat, and crack it at the diner? I know for a fact they're open." Anesh asked, and James nodded.
"Yeah, it turns out, I'm starving. Eight hours of sleep is great and all, but it's also eight hours sans food." He said. "Oh! I got you a present too!" He dropped a couple smaller skill orbs into Anesh's hand. "Now! Let's go eat! You're buying me a 'James was Right' burger!"
Anesh shook his head, smiling. Testing the effects of coffee on James could maybe wait until he had a little less of a headache.
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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!