"Okay, so, what are we doing tonight? Do you have a full list?" James asked Anesh as they sat in James' cubicle. He was currently between calls, having just explained to someone that it was reasonably unlikely that their phone was being tapped by the Chinese government. He specifically said 'unlikely', because he had a weird gut feeling that on the other side of the world, there was someone at a desk just like his, speaking a different language, explaining to a disgruntled spy over the phone that it was pretty unlikely that the random middle-age woman he was wiretapping in the US was actually onto him.
Anesh was standing in the middle of the small desk cluster, of which only one of the chairs was actually occupied. He was staring at the ceiling tiles above James' desk, one of which had been marked by a small sharpie'd X. "First thing on the list is figuring out why you haven't changed desks, if there's a dimensional rift that spits out monsters above this one."
James looked up at the ceiling briefly. "Well, I like this desk." He said before going back to hitting the random button on Wikipedia to kill time.
"There are dozens of empty desks around here. Just pick another one that isn't near the possibly murderous mob spawner." Anesh said, straining his ears to listen for any scratching noises above them. "Wait, actually, why are there so many empty desks? Does your company not employ people? I get that you're not super busy right now, but this floor is huge compared to the two people working here."
"Okay, I get what you're saying." James said as he looked over the Wikipedia page for a one mister Benjamin Kelsey. "But I don't think it's a dungeon thing. We've just had a lot of people quit, and our corporate overlords have a hiring freeze on because one of their manufacturing facilities is losing them money, and it's... it's just a whole *thing*." He tapped at his desk, turning to face Anesh as his friend made a disbelieving snort. "No, really, I mean, it can't be a dungeon thing, right?" A blank stare met his question. "There's no evidence of it! I've seen people just walk out in the middle of the day, there's no signs of struggle around here unless you count the crippling ennui we all deal with from too much tech support, and if employees really were being eaten by a monolithic entity from outside reality, I'm pretty sure management would *replace them faster*."
"That last one is a good point. Your country has some weird employer policies." Anesh grumbled. James sighed as he took a last call for the night, but Anesh kept talking at him even as the customer did. "But still. We know there's multiple doors, now. Or, holes? We need a good term for the entrances. We also know literally nothing about where the skill orbs come from, aside from random-ass guesses." James waved frantically at Anesh. "I'm just saying, we aren't really sure about...."
James physically stood up, saying a quick, "I'm sorry ma'am, please hang on." He unclipped his headset, go up, and casually pushed Anesh out of his cubicle area with minimal effort, leaving him standing in the hallway with a short *ssshhh* noise, and ignoring Anesh's ongoing rambling now mixed with giggling. Dropping back into his chair, he unmuted the call. "Now, ma'am, I think I misheard you. I thought you said your phone was hit by a train? ...I see. Okay, let's look up your warranty."
"How many calls like that do you get?" Anesh asked as they both did some stretches in Fort Door. After one too many instances of burning soreness in their legs after a night of constant running away from things, James had insisted on adding this to their 'gearing up' routine.
He thought about it for a while. "I mean, probably one in every three is something bizarre. I blame Google, really." He said, limbering up his arms.
"Google?" Came the puzzled question.
James nodded. "Yeah, see, as the number of problems that can be solved via Google increases, the density of insane calls to tech support rise as well. If people can fix small stuff, they *usually* don't bother us. So we get more calls from people who are either... really dumb... or who have fucking weird problems."
"How did her phone get hit by a train?"
"Oh, no, *she* got hit by a train and it damaged her phone."
Anesh froze in mimicking James' stretching routine. "And she... called you?"
"She was bored in the hospital. Gotta have something to do, I guess." James shrugged as he finished up, and started strapping on armor. "Now! Do we have an objective list?"
They did, in fact, have an objective list. James wanted to go pick up those cameras they'd left behind, which had served their purpose quite well, but were almost immediately forgotten in the wake of Ganesh both being animate, and being insanely helpful. It wasn't the most important thing in the world, but those cameras were pretty expensive, and even though they'd probably been in here for a lot of subjective time, he wanted them back if only for his own personal amusement. Anesh's personal goal today was to find one of the vending machines, funnel all the extra $4 bills they'd found into it, and fill up those carboys he'd bought with enough novelty soda to last him through the next year.
More generally, they were looking for another colony of iLipedes. Anesh still refused to touch the things, but he had no problem with James using one to continually litmus test for "magic" items. On that note, Anesh had an unofficial and unspoken goal of trying to get James to call them something other than magic items before the end of the day. James himself also felt like there was never a problem with some casual looting, even though financially, Anesh assured him they were set for a little while. James also encouraged Anesh to put his pattern recognition skill to use, and see if they could find anything remotely approaching a puzzle in this place.
So, they worked out their pattern while they strapped on their beat up armor, and James gave Rufus some much deserved pets. Cameras first, then back off away from the break room. No need to go after another tumblefeed under armed. Sweep out about a half mile into the cubes, and find a vending machine, then trace a path back and get the hand cart with the jugs. Map it out the whole way, and also leave signposts. Try to get a general idea for the layout beyond just their instincts.
"Hey Rufus, you wanna come along with us this time?" James asked the little guy as they were stepping out the door. The strider looked up at his giant friend, and then back down at the paperclip web he was carefully spinning, before holding up two of his pen legs in an X. "That's weirdly adorable. Alright, see ya later buddy!" James called as he and Anesh, with Ganesh riding his human's shoulder, took off. As they passed by, Rufus raised up one leg, and Anesh, seeing it, took a second to high-five the little stapler.
They stalked into the outer ring of cubicles, and Rufus watched them vanish into the beige maze. He appreciated James' offer, but he was never going back in there if he could help it.
"I feel like an idiot." James remarked as they were two turns into the maze. He was taking point, with Ganesh staying low on Anesh's shoulder for now. This part of the office was fairly open, and he could pretty easily poke his head over a wall if needed; no need to advertise their presence by launching a drone up where everyone could see.
Anesh stalked along behind him, casually checking cubicles as the pair moved at a much faster pace than they had before. Neither of them had their weapons out yet, both having realized how fast their grips got tired and palms got sweaty. "Why, aside from the normal reasons?"
This got a huffing chuckle from James. "I feel like you're abusing the banter license I gave you. But no, it's the stupid armor." He kept twitching his shoulders, trying to get the football padding to settle into a more comfortable position.
"Is it perhaps the giant hole in the back of the armor?" Anesh asked wryly, scanning a cube to their left for anything hostile. It was empty, but there was a suspiciously fresh looking desk lamp in there, despite this being a cube they'd looted before.
"Exactly!" James said, trying to scratch at his back. "The edges melted weird, and it's poking me, and I hate it. I think I'm just gonna dump it here and go without today. We're not doing anything that should require it, right?"
"That's the logic that gets people who don't wear seatbelts killed, James." Anesh said simply as he moved to take the lead. "Keep your stupid armor on. We'll get new stuff next week."
James simply grumbled as they kept moving, leaving the armor on. He wasn't happy about it, though; he didn't like feeling like there was anything motivating him to finish early here, in this place that gave his life so much spice.
They picked up the first two cameras fairly easily, and had just gotten to the third when James noticed something. "Hey, this one still has its light on." Anesh looked over from his watch position. "Yeah," James said, "this one isn't dead. The battery is still good. Hang on." He fumbled in his pocket for a second before pulling out his phone, his *actual* phone, not an iLipede, and opening up the camera app. "Check it out." He flashed the screen over at Anesh.
"No way." Was the disbelieving reply.
On the phone screen was a clear image of the two of them, along with the available controls for the wireless camera, and a battery bar that read at 2%. "What the hell? I mean, these things have batteries that are supposed to last for a month or something, but, isn't the time dilation too extreme here?" James asked.
Anesh grabbed his arm and pulled him back a step. "It could be alive now." He muttered. "But yeah, we did the math based on the clocks. Three minutes out, eight hours in. One week out, three years in. This thing shouldn't be functioning. What about the others?"
"The two we got are dead. Let's see..." He tapped his screen a couple times. "Yup, last one's up too, also almost out of juice. The hell?"
Anesh just pulled the camera down off its clipped mount. "Well, there's an easy answer. We're just wrong about the sodding time bollocks." He spat out. "It's been about a month, right? So, these bloody things must have only been here for a month, unless the stapler are changing their batteries. And that means there's something we don't know about the entrances."
"You swear funny when you're agitated." James snickered
"Fuck off." Anesh swatted his shoulder pad. "Let's go get the last one, and get moving." He strode off down the hall toward where they'd planted the sixth camera.
James laughed and followed.
Half an hour later, they were prowling back, slipping through the cubicle farm with a level of comfort that they just didn't feel deeper in. "Okay," James said, "drop these off, then go find a vending machine for ya, right?"
"Right." Anesh said. "But first, lets go through these few cubes. I think this is around where you found Lilly? I want to see if you can get another one and we can go through a few thousand random things for altered items."
"Magic items." James said, stepping into the cube on the left
Anesh took the desk on the right. "Nope." He said almost instantly.
James just snickered to himself as he looked through the cube. Pretty quickly, he could see no iLipedes, but he did see a stack of envelopes on the keyboard. "Internal memos?" He muttered to himself, picking one up and turning it over in his hands. "Cubicle number as an address, no name. Hm." He tossed it back down. "I feel like, if there were a dungeon puzzle, this is the part where I've stumbled into the third clue without finding the first, or knowing the goal."
He kept turning through drawers and documents, looking more for anything that stood out to him than something in particular. As he turned to leave, feeling like his cursory tossing of the cubicle was done, he did spot a purse over on a small metal cabinet in the corner that he'd missed the first time. Shrugging, he went over to the thick red leather bag, and picked it up to see if it held anything of value.
Well, he tried to pick it up. It didn't work. He tried again, getting a good grip on it, and pulling upward, but the purse stayed firmly attached to the two-drawer metal filing cabinet beneath it. James took a step back, and looked at the stubborn object with eyebrows comically raised. "Well ain't that some shit." He muttered. On the other side of the hall, he heard Anesh moving to the next cubicle, already done with his assuredly much more thorough search. James was falling behind his friend, but now he had something to be curious about, and he wasn't too concerned with keeping up.
Circling around to the side of the filing cabinet, James tried to see if there was anything behind it. It didn't look like it was attached to the walls, so he grabbed it by the base, and dragged it out a few inches. He looked at it speculatively, pacing circles around the whole thing. James sure as hell wasn't going to stick his hand in the purse at this point, but he was curious as to what this whole setup *was*.
He kicked the cabinet. Nothing. Kneeling down, he gingerly reached out and opened one of the drawers, holding up his other arm in front of his face just in case. Also nothing. He peeked into the drawer. Paper. Which translated to nothing.
Standing back up, he stretched a bit, and leaned in, poking at the purse, trying to see inside it.
"What are you doing?" Anesh said from the doorway.
James jumped a little bit. "Oh, just checking this out. You want to get the last cube and I'll catch up with you? I'm trying out this whole 'thinking before I act' thing."
Anesh snorted. "Good luck." He said, ducking back out and going off to keep scouring cubes.
Shaking his head, James looked back at the bag. There wasn't really anything in it, honestly. A few of what looked like lipstick tubes, a handful of business cards, a set of keys that most likely didn't match any existing door. But the damn thing wouldn't let James lift it up, and, again, he had no desire to test it by putting his hand inside if it might literally bite him.
So, in a moment of frustration, he planted his left foot and lashed out with his right, catching the bag with a solid side kick. And the immobile bag slid sideways off the cabinet, thumping into the floor. "Oh, fuck you." James muttered at it as he pulled his leg back from the kick. Leaning down, he went to grab the purse, but when he straightened his back, found it now firmly attached to the floor itself. "Anesh!" He called over the cubicle wall. "I found something that can only go one way on the Y-Axis!"
There was a moment of silence, and then James heard something brittle cracking, followed by a fleshy tearing, from over the cubicle wall. James waited patiently as he heard something small and vaguely hard *thump* into the floor over in Anesh's looting territory. "Which way?" He heard Anesh call back, a bit short of breath.
"Down!" He replied, glaring at the bag.
"Break it down into an orb, we can't use that." Anesh said from the door, having come over to look. He wiped some black ichor off his hand as he peered at the purse. "Why'd you drop it?"
"It was an accident." James said, pulling out his hatchet and laying a few hits on the purse. After the fourth one, it dissolved away, leaving behind a clear blue orb behind, this one larger than the few small ones they'd found before. "Huh. Size two. That makes me wonder if the 'only go down' thing is just really powerful, or if I should have checked for more magic first."
Anesh sighed. "Alterations. And it's probably fine. Here, I got this from the other cube, I think it's well past your turn." He tossed a small yellow to James.
"Thanks!" James said, pocketing the blue and cracking into the yellow.
[+.8 Skill Rank : Art - Painting - Miniatures]
Anesh was already out in the hallway, looking around and getting ready to move on. "Anything good?"
"Only if I'm dumb enough to start playing Warhammer again. Though hey, I got a fractional skill rank for this one. Does that mean that my mini painting ability was .2? I'm... either offended, or intrigued. How good am I now at highlighting armor plates?"
His friend didn't even look back as they started walking on. "I don't know what that means, but please don't paint my armor."
"No promises." James responded as they walked back toward Fort Door, already envisioning sticking a techpriest logo on his friend's backplate.
James sat on an overturned ceramic plant while Anesh fed $4 bill after $4 bill into the vending machine next to him. He idly tossed one of the slightly larger skill orbs, pilfered from this particularly vicious ficus, in his hands. "I've been thinking..." He said casually.
"Uh oh." Anesh responded as he started pushing the button for the drink he'd settled on repeatedly. It was a curried fruit soda called, if they read the label right, Water Except It's Red.
"Oh, come on. This is vaguely important." James rolled his eyes as he rebuffed Anesh's quip. "So, I've been thinking, shut up Anesh, that what we're doing here isn't technically illegal. I think?"
Anesh started pulling out bottle after bottle of the drink from the vending machine, setting them in a neat pile next to the carboy he'd set up with a giant funnel for exactly this purpose. "You think?"
"Well," James said, "it's not like there's a law about this. But I think that, from a real estate standpoint, this whole place counts as 'somewhere else', and not inside the building. So, it doesn't 'belong' to anyone in particular." He shrugged, juggling his new skill orb. "I just think this falls under the category of unclaimed resource exploitation. Like if we were to capture an asteroid and mine it. No one gets a cut, because no one 'owned' it."
"Is asteroid mining something we have legal precedent for?" Anesh asked curiously.
"Sorta." James said. "Which is weird, and yes, we're living in the science fiction future, but it's there. I'm just saying, I don't think we need to worry about being arrested if we ever have to tell the police about this place."
"Why would we do that? Seems like a great way to be committed to a mental health institution."
James shrugged. "I dunno, if this is secretly part of some apocalypse scenario, I'm passing it off to the guys who have grenade launchers. "
"They won't believe you." Anesh said as he filled up his giant jug with soda. "Also, why the flying fuck do your old bill have grenade launchers? Also! *We* built a grenade launcher! We are the people you'd want between you and the apocalypse!" He finished excitedly.
"Sure, maybe." James replied. "But I sure don't want to face down an apocalypse myself. Also, that grenade launcher exploded, and I'm iffy on repeating that process. Though, you know, maybe." He looked over at Anesh. "Hey, do you mind if I use this orb? It's really tempting."
"Oh, yeah, go ahead mate. Like I said, I feel like I've been getting all the good stuff lately. You should have a chance." Anesh said, still funneling his bizarre novelty drink into the giant container.
James thanked him, and used the faintly glowing yellow orb in his hand.
[+2 Skills Ranks : Speed Reading]
"Holy shit, this one is actually pretty awesome. Speed reading!" He looked over at Anesh. "Probably just going to get more reading done. But hey, that's awesome. Do you know how much fun stuff there is to read on the internet?"
"I've heard it's 'some'." Anesh replied. James laughed, and the duo lapsed back into comfortable silence, with James keeping watch while Anesh went through the tedious process of filling up each of the three big jugs he'd brought with a choice drink for them to take home.
James just took the time to look around at his surroundings. Really look, that is. There were a few things posted on the outside of the cubicles around here, little comics or memos. Some of them looked like real world newspaper comics, but with the word bubbles scrambled or left blank. The memos were all different phrasings of the same thing. "Someone's birthday today, looks like." He tossed over his shoulder at Anesh. "There's cake in either the conference room, the manager's office, or the overhead ventilation ducts, depending on which of these is accurate."
He glanced up, and saw no overhead. They were maybe a mile, mile and a half in. They'd had to go through the break room to get here, but fortunately didn't stumble across a tumblefeed on the way. They'd also been very careful, and avoided all the rocket java on the way in, rather than risk making too much noise. Even still, there wasn't a ceiling here; just very tall cube walls. Visibility was pretty hard to achieve when the walls around you were ten feet tall, and the corridors were, while spacious for an office environment, still an office environment. But overhead, he could see distant white ceiling panels and fluorescent lights, unchanging and uninterrupted in their pattern.
And also something else.
"Hey, there's something moving up there." He muttered to Anesh. "Anesh! Hey!" His friend looked up.
Anesh peered at the ceiling as he dumped one of the last bottles into his final jug. "I don't see... oh, there it is. Huh. Moving kinda fast. What is it?"
"I think... it's a paper airplane?" James squinted. "Yeah, it's far away, but it sure seems like it. Shit, that's cool. Maybe it's like the hawk predator to the pigeons that are the loose paper?"
"Maybe." Anesh said. "Just make sure it doesn't get too close. I don't want to get stabbed in the eye today." James gave him a mocking salute and went back to keeping watch. It was only a few more minutes until Anesh finished up. "Alright," he said, "let's get out of here. We can check the time at the door, and then go from there, yeah?"
James agreed, and helped Anesh load the carboys onto the hand truck, tying them down with bungee cord. "I honestly am not sure how you expect our friends to react to this stuff."
"Well, I expect at least one of them to hate it, and that'll be funny, and at least one of them to like it, which will just be cool. And I'll tell them it's from England so no one questions it." Anesh shrugged. "Seems like the easy way to get around the mental coercion is to just tell really stupid lies. You have to try to be convincing, but that doesn't mean you can't make the lie itself obvious and dumb." He said, slapping one of the labels from Water Except It's Red onto the associated jug.
Shaking his head and chuckling, James led the way as they started heading back. He was all for Anesh trying to bait people into asking direct questions about the dungeon, really. It was just worrying that this level of mental control was happening to them. He thought back to his dream, and the familiar feeling that the monster in his mind gave off. He was almost certain he recognized it, but he couldn't get a good look, or a good grip, on the intruder. Anesh still wasn't convinced that what James had seen was real, exactly, but James knew. And it was only a matter of time before he could strengthen his mind, just like he was doing with his body, to the point that even this level of coercion wouldn't stop him.
But for now, there was soda to swipe and monsters to watch for. And if they were lucky, before the end of the day, a few more orbs to crack.
"That's five yellows, and an accidental blue." James said, tracking their gains. "We really need to go deeper in if we're going to find an iLipede today. Do you know why Ganesh stayed back at the fort?"
"No idea." Anesh said, peering around a corner. "Wait, hang on." He held up a hand at James. "Something weird there. Look."
He stepped aside to let James move up and look, and James peeked out around the tan fuzzy wall to see the hallway that led back to their home base. Normally, the halls here were more or less empty, with the occasionally vending machine, water cooler, and oversized hostile plastic potted plant sitting in the frequent intersections. But here, there was a waist high metal push cart sitting in the middle of the aisle, tied bundles of paper sticking out of the sides of small slots and boxes. "Is that a mail cart? How'd it get here?" James asked.
Before Anesh could answer, James felt a dropping feeling in his stomach. His hand reached to his belt, and he unclipped his axe to grip tightly. Anesh mirrored his actions, the hair on both their arms standing up. "What the hell?" Anesh muttered.
James pulled back from around the corner. "Something's wrong here. Move back."
Anesh felt the creeping chill, but he wasn't as convinced. "Why? What did you see?" He asked, but James was already pushing him the other direction.
James caught at his friend and turned him around in front of him. "Come on. It's one of the empty people you saw." He kept his voice at a sharp whisper as he shoved Anesh back the way they'd come. Behind them, he knew, that thing was stepping back to its mail cart, and would be moving at any time. He didn't want to be there if it came toward them.
Bracing his feet, Anesh stopped James from shoving him along. "Hold on, just one? Calm down, man!" He broke James' grip and shoved his hands back a bit. "We can take just one!" He hissed out, looking at James too-serious expression.
"It looks like someone who used to work here!" James barked out in a low tone. "It looks like Jerome! It's just... absolutely not, and it's creepy! So that makes two things we've been horrifyingly wrong about in about an hour, and I'd like to get the fuck out right now before it gets worse!" He said.
"Okay, okay!" Anesh said calmly. He held up a hand. "I'm going to go check on it, first. This matters, and you need to calm down. This is the first time we've seen one this far out in the ring, we need to see what it's doing."
James took a couple deep breaths. His friend was right. This place had been spooky since day one, and it wasn't like this changed that. Nor did it actually prove anything; though he had a gut feeling that told him that he knew exactly what this proved. "Alright, fine. But it's moving around. I think these things pay a little more attention than the tumblefeeds."
They crept back to the corner, trying as hard as possible to move silently in the dead office air while wearing their light armor and heavy boots. This time, James went first, making a quick scan of the hallway before ducking back.
What he saw was... weirdly normal, while being utterly horrifying. The Thing That Was Not Jerome was, as Anesh had told him, shaped exactly like a person. It was wearing a blue polo shirt, it had one of those phone watches on, it had a cup of coffee on its cart. It moved like a human did, but not quite accurate. The thing just didn't quite make the proper fluid movements, looking not exactly like it was jerking around, but more that it just mistiming its own steps. The hollow person was pulling a stack of paper off the cart - letters and memos from the look of it - and turned to take it into the next set of cubicles. James watched cautiously as it would go in, toss some mail down, then move on. It didn't seem at all concerned that these cubicles had been looted of anything of value, but then, maybe it didn't see value the same way he did.
He turned to whisper to Anesh that they should switch, but as soon as he did, he saw something behind his friend that made his heart rate spike. Pointing, wide eyed, he saw Anesh spin around and see the same thing he did. A tumblefeed, the giant ball of tangled cables moving with shocking stealth; this one looked like it was made up mostly of power cords and phone chargers, and it was already only about ten cube lengths away, maybe a hundred and fifty feet tops.
James didn't have time to make an informed decision. He just knew they needed to get out of there. So, he grabbed Anesh's arm again, and pulled him around the corner, toward the inhuman human thing. Anesh started to protest, but there wasn't time to really worry about it or debate. James had a plan, even if it was a stupid one.
He strode down the hallway, and when the hollow man stepped out of the cubicle it was delivering mail to, James just gave it a wide smile, a wave, and said "Evening!" in a cheerful tone, walking on past.
Anesh glimpsed the face of the thing as they went by. Dark skin and white teeth turned up in a smile that would have been quite pleasant, if it were on an actual person. Then that same face suddenly transformed into a sharp frown, an Anesh felt his skin go cold.
"Weapons are not allowed on company property. This is in the employee handbook." The flat voice from behind them was both monotone, and strangely oscillating at the same time, with the emphasis on the wrong syllable in half its words. James turned to give some snarky answer, still walking backward, only to see the hollow employee holding up a brilliant purple orb.
He stopped walking for a second, curiosity and a bit of greed getting the better of him. Anesh stopped too, and started to say "Oh, we'll just..." But before he could finish, the creature... used... the orb.
The thing didn't break it like they did. Instead, it did something else, that James couldn't quite process. He could tell that it did something, that action was impressed upon the orb in its hand, but not exactly what it was that happened, because there was no physical motion. Even still, the orb split apart, thin smoke and a few small points of light spun out of it, hurling down the hall toward them.
James threw out an arm and pushed Anesh behind himself. A heartbeat later, the glittering dust hit him, and he could sense more than feel it burrowing into his mind, not his body.
There was a thunk as his hand axe hit the ground. He hadn't told his hand to let go, but then, there were no weapons allowed on company property, so of course he wouldn't carry it. "Well fuck." He said out loud. "We need to go. Now. Run. Go!"
The hollow thing was there, though, right in their face. James lashed out with a fist in a short, hard punch, but it ducked under it. The thing grabbed for his head, but James twisted out of the way, aiming a kick for its knee, which connected with an unsatisfying *whump*.
Anesh, seeing his chance, swept down and grabbed the discarded axe, and arced both of them toward the not-a-man as it tried to grab James' neck. One of them, it dodged, seeming to rotate its spine in a way that would kill a human. The other one hit its shoulder, and a burst of dust and shredded paper poured out of the wound.
Howling, it twisted around, contorting itself to launch forward at Anesh. He yelped and tried to step back, but stumbled, and the creature caught one of his arms in its grip.
There was a slow, ugly snapping. Like a wet stick being broken over too many seconds by a bored high schooler. And that's the exact way the creature looked, too. Anesh screamed as his arm was folded in half, casually, by the monster that had caught him. James saw this, and howled his own battle cry, placing the hardest kick he could muster at the creature's wounded shoulder.
The arm simply flopped off, the grip on Anesh disappearing as soon as it no longer connected to the main body of the empty man-shaped horror. Anesh fell onto his ass, pulling himself backward with one good arm and scrambling legs. James hauled him to his feet by his good shoulder, and pointed, getting him moving. He waited a half second before following, starting out with a backward jog to keep an eye on the hollow man, now staring at its own flat arm on the ground, but turning into a full on run when the tumblefeed breached over a cubicle wall into the hallway.
His heart pounded in his chest, and his fingernails dug into his palms as he ran behind Anesh, just barely keeping up. Behind him, he heard an unearthly wail, and assumed that the sound had to be coming from the not-person.
He didn't bother to look. He couldn't waste the energy.
The two of them flew down the halls, taking turns as fast as they could while wearing padding and running at full tilt. Both of them knew they couldn't fight the tumblefeed. But if they could lose it, then maybe, just maybe, they could take the employee of the month back there. James heard another hissing scream behind them, this one of frustration and annoyance, and sounding more like the tumblefeed than the alien sounds of the employee. They'd lost at least one of their pursuers, it seemed. But the damage from the noise was already done. He could hear clicking, the familiar skittering of a hundred tiny legs.
There was a swarm coming, and he was too mad to deal with this right now.
"Anesh! Split up! I'll lead them, you get back to the fort. Make sure Rufus and Ganesh are safe, then send him out for me later!" James panted out at his friend as they came up on an intersection.
Anesh thought this was the stupidest idea ever, but there was no time to argue, and no clear thought through the pain. He veered right, taking his cue from their sticky note signpost, while James paused for a minute. He waited until the hollow man came around the back corner, a carpet of stapler crabs (striders, James reminded himself) flowing around his feet.
As soon as James was sure the 'employee' had seen him, he took a deep breath, flipped it off, and bolted down the left path.
He ran and ran and ran, until he wasn't sure where he was anymore. He took turn after turn in the maze of indistinguishable halls and walls, well past where he and Anesh had mapped out. On several occasions, a strider would dive at him from a wall as he passed, and James took one hit to his neck before he realized that he was being attacked. After that, every one that tried got slapped out of the air, once he was paying attention.
No weapons, after all, didn't mean he'd just give up.
James took another corner, and decided he'd gone far enough. He could hear the distant hiss of hundreds of striders chasing after him, and the occasional 'shout' from the employee, but he was out of breath, out of stamina, and more importantly, out of hallway. For the first time he'd ever hit a dead end, he hoped that it wouldn't be the last.
Slumping into a large padded chair, he stared at the door to the cubicle, trying to breath as quietly as possible. Five minutes passed, then ten, and James just sat and rested. His legs ached, the puncture wound in his neck itched, and his hand hurt from where he'd slapped a strider into a wall at the wrong angle. But he was alive, and if it had worked, so was Anesh. All he had to do was sit tight until the little drone came to get him.
In the meantime, he started fiddling with the computer here. After checking that the tower wasn't going to bite his legs off, he turned on the monitor and got a username/password prompt. Well, he wasn't going anywhere, so he had some time. It took him about two minutes to find the sticky note on the inside of the desk drawer that had the password, and another ten minutes of trying permutations of usernames based on the nametag left on the desk to get the right combo.
His reward for his persistence was... nothing. The desktop had a bunch of random text documents on it, one of which appeared to just be a recipe for a green bean casserole, but nothing useable. The documents folder contained a few things that James initially thought might have been statistics on the dungeon itself, judging by the titles, but quickly turned out to appear to just be random numbers. The one thing he found that sparked his interest, was the single file icon in the 'music' folder.
It was a song, from AC/DC. And he'd never heard it before.
As he sat there, listening to who was clearly Brian Johnson singing about the fall of the second Cuban utopia, he had a thousand conflicting thoughts. Where did this come from? Was it just generated like an advanced Markov chain? Or did the dungeon pluck this from an alternate reality where both Cuba had a utopian society, and AC/DC were a political commentary band? Or was this just some random chance thing, a few stray thoughts smashed together into something that was, at some point, picked up by whatever the hell this place was, who knew how many years and miles away?
He wished he'd brought a flash drive. This was twice now. But he wasn't going to delete this one. He'd come back to it later. Or maybe not. But it was a piece of art, either way, and he'd be damned if he'd let his desire to collect more blues turn him into the kind of person who destroyed art. Especially something that might literally be one of a kind.
James was jarred from his thoughts by a strider slamming into his head, his helmet having been set to the side while he clicked through menus. He bit his tongue, tasting blood, and had to snarl to resist the urge to start yelling at the little nightmare. Its pen legs drew scratches on his scalp as it tried to find purchase, but it only took James a second to reach up, grab it, and slam it down onto the floor. His boot came down on the upturned creature a second later, snapping legs off and bowing the chitinous underbelly inward with a *pop* and a small splatter of black goo off to the side.
Sighing to himself, collected and cracked the skill orb that spawned above the corpse.
[+1 Skill Rank : Botany - Greenhouse]
Neat, he thought, as he sat back in the chair, rubbing his head.
James sighed with relief as he heard the buzzing of a quadcopter drone overhead. It had been a long and productive day, even with this whole problem. He just hoped that one of these blues would fix Anesh before they had to go to the hospital again.
He stood up and dusted himself off, noticing for the first time that there was blood dripping from a cut on his leg. "God dammit, the ER is going to ask us all kinds of dumb questions about this." He muttered, looking at the staple embedded in his calf.
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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!