"Aw, fuck." James gasped out as he jogged through the entrance of Fort Door. Before him, Anesh had apparently made it back, and then passed out. Probably from the pain of having a snapped arm, though James could only speculate. Rufus was waiting just above the entrance, and gave James a friendly hiss as he came in, Ganesh riding on his shoulder. "Okay, this is a problem. Um... wake up?" He said expectantly.
Anesh did not wake up.
"Oh hell, come on man. I cannot carry you out of here." James leaned down and patted Anesh's cheek, trying to get him conscious. "Come on, I have a blue here for you, but it's probably gonna do your laundry and we're going to need to get to a hospital. Also I cannot carry you, or your soda, I am so tired, please get up." He shook his friend, careful not to jostle his arm too much. Still sitting uncomfortably on his shoulder, Ganesh let out a small wailing cry.
Anesh stirred a bit, cracking his eyes open. "My arm hurts..." He murmured.
"No shit!" James let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "Okay, get up. Or, wait, no. Use this." He pulled the size two blue out of his pocket and handed it to Anesh, who winced a bit as he tried to use his broken arm before remembering.
"Why did I get a broken bone again?" He whined softly as he took the orb.
James quickly stripped off his armor, tossing his medkit onto the table and swiftly opening it. "No idea, maybe you should have *fucking run when I told you to*." He snapped out as he applied disinfectant and hemostatic powder to his neck, before covering the area with a large bandage.
Anesh looked like he couldn't tell if he was furious, or passing out again. "I sa... saved your ass." He muttered back, pain leaving an edge of real anger in his voice.
"Crack your damn orb." James replied, annoyance tinting his words as he repeated the process with the blood dripping from his leg.
His friend just glared at him for a second, before a spike of pain burned through his arm, and made him wince. Anesh let out a soft sob, dropping the blue orb to roll along the floor. James was there in an instant, worry on his face. "Come on, come on, it's fine, I'm not actually mad. Here, take these." He pressed a pair of high strength painkillers to Anesh's lips, followed by a water bottle. "Where'd the orb... ah. Thanks Rufus."
The strider gave a small nodding bow as it held the orb up to James, before stepping back a bit. Rufus stepped back and forth in worry as James pressed the orb into Anesh's hand. "Here. Use it." He said, holding the orb down into his friend's palm.
Anesh, on the verge of blacking out, applied minor pressure to the orb in his hand. James felt an eerie crawling sensation on his palm as the orb popped, and a vibrating energy flowed away from him, down into Anesh.
[Problem Solved : Acquired Shipment]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Cooking - Indian]
"Didn't... work." He murmured, dropping his hand away from James'.
Around them, both Rufus and Ganesh had gone shock still. Then, in a flurry of motion, Rufus rushed the front wall and started scaling his web. Ganesh shoved off of James' shoulder with a blast of his rotors, pushing into the air and over the wall in a hurry. James cocked his head as the two seemed to suddenly flee, but then he heard it. Footsteps, running, from somewhere nearby. And then a voice. "Tresspassing is for*bid*den on comp*any* property!"
"Neeeoh." Anesh tried to get to his feet, but couldn't find the strength to stand. "Don't wanna. Gotta get out." He leaned toward the door from his slumped position at the base of one of their desks.
James ran over to the door and pushed at it to prop it open for his friend, but for the first time ever, found it locked. He checked his watch; they had plenty of time, it just wasn't opening right now. Feeling the edge of terror in his mind, he ran back over to Anesh, and knelt down.
"Not an option anymore." James said softly, and with a calm that surprised even himself. He was already going through Anesh's pockets. Looking for, and finding, the other two small blues that had been held onto since they'd first realized it was an option. With a bit of concealed panic, he stuffed one of them into Anesh's hand. "Crack it. Now."
Anesh gave him a look, rolling his head to make eye contact with James. "Why? Just.. drag me out. I can survive to the hosp.. hopsital."
James wrapped Anesh's hand in his own, and pushed them down around the blue. "It's not opening right now! Besides that, they're not a hive mind, man! If it finds the door, this place isn't going to be open anymore unless we roll in with a tank battalion! Also, do you want to try to rehome Rufus and Ganesh out in the real world? Or just leave them to die here? I don't think either option gets us a lot of good karma! Now crack the fucking blue!" James stood up before waiting for a response.
The dark, warbling voice came through the air again. "Hello? How are *you*?" It asked, distant but closer to the fort than before.
James sighed, rolling his shoulders. "I'm doing fine, you son of a bitch." He muttered under his breath. Unzipping the backpack on the table, he pulled out a thermos of coffee. "Anesh. Get under the desk. It's gotta be that guy holding the door shut. If this doesn't go well, wait for him to leave, then slip out." He heard Anesh weakly protest behind him, but there wasn't time to go over this now.
And then he walked out to the front of their home base, standing open in the no-man's land. Rufus chittered nervously a bit from the paperclip webs above him. Off to the left, he saw Ganesh out of the corner of his eye, flying low to the ground, come out from the cubicle maze and head back toward James, perching on the wall behind him. He looked up. "Tried to draw it off?" Ganesh nodded. "Didn't work?" Ganesh shook his head. "Of course. Well, you tried." He said, nodding at the drone.
Across from James, turning a corner at the end of a hall, walking quickly but not running, a hollow thing-that-was-not-human came into view. It wore dark skin and a pale blue shirt, and it slowed when it saw him standing there. About a half dozen striders skittered around at its feet. Taking a deep breath, James unscrewed the lid to the thermos and chugged down the coffee, tossing the metal tin back behind him.
"Okay." He said, as the employee came closer, walking at a steady but slow pace. It paused as he started talking, tilting its head. "I like this place. A lot." James said. "I also like my friend, quite a lot." He continued. "You jeopardize one, and hurt the other. So I'm going to fuck you up, okay?"
"*Threats* of violence are *re*ported to hoomaan *re*sour*ces*!" It droned out in that strange voice, like shattering glass. Accusingly, it lifted a finger to point at James. "Violation of *com*pan*eeee* policy." It said, as if it expected him to care. James, feeling the coffee start to take effect, slipped into a fighting stance, shuffling one foot forward and raising his fists. The hollow man, though, wasn't done. It pulled its hand back to its face, and *pulled*.
James watched in startled horror as the thing's face ripped away from itself, leaving only an empty, featureless plane of skin on the body where a face should be. The removed face itself, he saw as soon as it was detached, was simply a paper mask, composed of folded sheets of paper, with sticky notes trailing behind it to form a wreath of dark purple hair. "Ah." Was all he had time to say, before the thing flung it's now detached face at him.
And then there was violence.
The mask flew toward him, screaming, bone spikes extended around its edges. James saw it coming, with the employee's thudding steps right behind it, striders dancing around his feet. He planted his feet and prepared to grab the mask, but before it got to him, there was a rapidly rising hum, and then, Ganesh slammed into it from the side, dragging the mask out of James' vision.
James blinked, shocked. He would have watched the aerial duel between the mask and the drone, but the employee was on him then, and there was no time. It came in, arm extended like it wanted to shake his hand. But the blank face and the force of its movement told James the gesture was anything but friendly. He stepped forward, feeling the coffee kicking in. James' arm blurred out, his fist slamming into the wrist of the offered hand. The speed of his strike bent the arm where he hit it, the wrist folding around his hand like there was no bone inside at all.
But as soon as he pulled back, the thing's arm was back to normal, and it swept up at James in an attempt to grab his face.
James whipped himself backward, arms stuck outward to keep his balance. He jerked back up as the hollow employee overextended on a swipe, and brought his knee into it's ribcage. His enemy almost folded in half from the force of the blow, and James didn't relent, taking advantage of the opportunity. He rained punches down on its chest and neck as it tried to right itself. The speed from the coffee made it hard for him to keep track of his own motions as he sent strike after strike into his opponent, aiming to crush vital bits or break bones, neither of which it actually seemed to *have*.
Then the striders made it to where the pair were trading blows. James noticed the first one when it lunged for his ankle, and he twisted his foot out of the way, throwing his shoulder into the non-human to drive it back while he regained his footing. Part of regaining his footing was bringing his boot down as hard as possible onto the little stapler monster, and it let out a squeal as he smashed its chitin plates into its internals. The second one he just booted away, because there was no time, and his boxing partner was up and coming at him again.
It was fast. Faster than anything should be. And he knew that if it caught him, he was dead. He'd seen how it had snapped Anesh's arm like it was a piece of rotten wood; he couldn't afford a single slip up like that here. As it lept toward him over the half dozen or so staplers still moving in, he snapped out a kick that took it in its midsection and sent it crashing to the ground. It may be fast, but the coffee made him faster. His brain was catching up with his enhanced speed now, and he was starting to feel more in sync with what he could actually do.
Taking a deep breath, wishing he had something to hit this fucker with, he steadied himself and got ready to keep fighting. He almost lost his mind giggling when the mask flew past his field of vision, Ganesh and Rufus tearing it apart mid flight as it screamed out "Merrrrgerrrrr!"
There was no time to laugh, though, and the thought of giving ground to this thing sobered him up right away. James punted another strider away as it lunged for him, then shuffled in a 90 degree arc around the not-a-person, moving fast to keep out of biting range of the strider pack while he fought. It was back on its feet now, a couple of gashes in the space where its face should have been and its throat, leaking bits of dust and shredded paper confetti. "Alright, creepsman. Come on." He held up his fists in a guard position.
The enemy moved like a wolf, catching James off guard. It dropped back to all fours, leg and arm joints shifting to allow for the different form of movement, and it exploded forward in motion, slamming into James' right leg, even as he pivoted to dodge. The force of the hit spun him around, and he fell backward, catching himself with one arm as the creature continued moving, taking a sloping turn to come back around for another pass. James yelled out a cry of pain and defiance as one of the staplers sunk metal teeth into the back of his palm; grabbing the thing and hurling it at the incoming employee. The heavy improvised projectile left an open gash on its face, but didn't slow it down. James dropped, rolling right, as it sped by, one of its shoes clipping him in the side and cracking one of his ribs with a burst of pain that left him coughing.
To his left, he saw three more striders, moving in rapidly, staple fangs out, going straight for his face. He was still moving faster than a human should be able to, and he grabbed the lead one and flung it *away*, not bothering to check the trajectory. But he was getting tired, he was getting hurt, and the creature was coming back. These little things were painful, and possibly lethal distractions from his main foe.
Which is why he was relieved and surprised in equal measure when Rufus slammed into one of them, tumbling end over end and removing it from his frame of vision. The other strider paused for a second, as if deciding whether it should go for James' exposed eyes, or help its friend, but it took to long to think, and before it could move Ganesh was on it like a hawk. Literally, like a hawk. James barely had time to register that the drone was coming in before it had grabbed the unsuspecting stapler and dragged it off into the air.
James didn't waste his respite. He rolled over, and pulled himself back to his feet in a small hop. Staying in a crouch in case he got hit again, he scanned around looking for the employee. The hollow man wasn't hard to spot; it had stood up again, and was currently brushing itself off, as if all this was just a gentlemanly distraction. But as soon as he made it to his feet and made "eye" contact with it, the thing tilted its head in confusion.
"Yeah, I'm not dead." James muttered. "Come on, come get me. Come on!" He yelled at it, fists clenched. The thing just shrugged in a jerky, exaggerated way, and rushed him. It wasn't trying to grab him anymore, resorting to strikes and kicks in patterns that felt oddly like clunky replications of what James was using. Its fist came in, and James swept an arm up to catch it; but he forgot that even though he could see it's movements clearly, that the physics of his body didn't keep up with his increased reaction.
The fist hit the armguard and shattered it. Hard plastic snapped in half, and the straps on his arm went loose as the pieces of the armor that were still attached to them didn't have anything to support themselves. The impact of the hit also knocked James back, and shoved his arm out of position, with a soreness that he *knew* meant he'd be dealing with a bruise for a week after this. James staggered back, barely getting his arm back up to sweep the second punch away, deflecting the force instead of taking it this time.
He lashed back, planting his fist in the gash on the thing's face, and felt a moment of panic as his fist ripped it wider and slipped into the monster. Jerking back before it could grab him, he took a handful of shredded paper and dust with him, and it staggered away from him as he shook his fist off.
"What the fucking hell are you?" James muttered, casually shuffling his foot to the side to brush away one of the striders that got too close. It didn't answer, of course. Instead, reaching into its coat and pulling out an ornate looking pen, which it clicked open with a forceful note. "Oh, come on." James sighed, wishing not for the first time that he had his axe. His hand searched his pockets for anything he could use, and he felt the round smooth shape of the blue that he had taken from Anesh in his coat. Figuring there was no time like now for a problem to get solved, he cracked it quickly before pulling his hand back out to a guard position.
[Problem Solved : Apologized]
[+1 Skill Rank : Jeet Kun Do]
"Okay." James grinned. He felt a bit silly not using this one earlier, now. But, just as he was starting to feel the coffee wearing off, this could be what he needed to finish his opponent off. He tightened up his stance, and centered himself with a deep breath. He was ready for this.
The paper filled skin thing lunged in, pen whistling by his ear as he dodged. James shot a hand up and grabbed its arm, then pivoted and *slammed* it into the ground. The pen went skidding away toward Fort Door, leaving smoking wounds on the floor where the tip touched. "Oh, fuck that." James thought out loud, before jerking back, applying as much force as he could, and ripping the thing's arm off again. It made a sound like construction paper tearing, and leaked strips of loose paper that looked like it had been run through a shredder out of the shoulder. The arm in James' hands went limp and hollow, and as soon as it wasn't connected anymore, he could see and feel that it was nothing more than elaborately folded heavy paper.
Almost casually, he threw the arm away from himself. "Maybe this time it'll stick." He said, standing back up as fast as his shaking legs could work, trying to put some distance between himself and the paper man.
It rolled over, popping back to its feet, and James started to lose hope. He'd done so much damage to it, and it wasn't even slowing down. This now-faceless nightmare thing wasn't going to stop, and all he had was his fists to deal with it. It jerked forward, too fast for him to follow; he realized too late that he'd overextended, and that his coffee buff wasn't working at full capacity. Its hand closed around his throat before he could even move, and he felt, rather than heard, a voice telling him that security would escort him from the premises.
James clawed at the fingers and wrist that pinned his neck as it started to lift him off the ground. He couldn't breath, and he felt his strength draining away rapidly. Well, he thought as he lost control of his arms, at least he went down swinging.
And then James was on his back on the ground, looking up at the blank face of his enemy, sliced open by his blows from the fight, yes, but also with a flat black metal blade punched through right where the right eye would be.
And then Anesh ripped the boar spear out vertically, splitting its head in half. He held the spear braced under his good arm, and flipped it to the palm of his hand, bringing it down into the monster's back, burying it up to the crossguard and kicking it to shove it upward, leaving a gash the length of its spine.
James stumbled to his feet, wincing as he felt his ribs protest. He made eye contact with Anesh as his friend pulled the spear out again, and the two of them stood in silence for a minute. He glanced down, and noticed that his roommate had his arm in a cast.
"Ah. The blue worked then?" He asked, hesitantly.
Anesh stared at James in disbelief. "Most people would open this conversation with a 'thank you for saving my life'." He said. "But no, you go with that. Well, whatever, you're welcome."
"Um... where'd the spear come from?" James questioned, massaging his forehead as he tried to get his bearings. "Oh, also, thank you. Fuck, man, good timing."
"It was the first blue. Sped up the delivery time on the Amazon order, I think. Which... um... reminds me. We need to actually order exactly what this is when we get home."
James made a strangled noise in his throat. "Um *what*? No. Please don't break causality."
"It's fine. Probably. But I'm leaving it here just in case." Anesh said. He looked around at the open area, littered with scraps of paper, some of James' blood, and the wrecked husks of about twenty striders. Rufus scuttled over, bumping into James' boot with Ganesh riding his back, and as soon as they got close enough, the drone lifted off to alite on Anesh's shoulder. "Looks like you had it mostly under control." Anesh said, smiling.
"Oh, hell no. Let's not do this again. Rufus, none of them got away, right?" James asked, and the red and black stapler shook its head. "So our entrance is still more or less open. Okay, grab the orbs, let's get out of here." He said.
Anesh nodded. "Yeah, I'm ready to go home. The 'medical attention' problem solver apparently gave me painkillers too, but this still hurts like hell, and I feel like I could sleep for a week. Oh, make sure to leave some of the yellows for Rufus and Ganesh. Unless... they want to come with us?" He looked at the drone on his shoulder and raised an eyebrow.
Rufus, having scuttled up onto the wall of Fort Door, shook his head when James looked up at him, and tapped one of his legs forward on the wall. "I think he's claimed this place as his castle." James said. "What about Ganesh?"
"I think he's gonna stay here too." Anesh said, gently setting the drone onto one of the desks with his good hand. "You two be good, okay? Don't fuck with the employees if one of them shows up."
James and Anesh went about methodically grabbing up the small yellows from all the striders. Rufus brought over one of the larger ones from the mask, but James just pushed it back to him. He never would have had a chance if he'd had to deal with that thing simultaneously, so he figured they'd earned it as a trophy.
The thing that caught both their eyes, though, was the orb that spawned out of the paper employee. "Not a purple, that's disappointing." Anesh said, looking at it.
"Yeah, sure." James snorted. "But it's the size of a bowling ball. And... does this one look like it has different swirls of tone in it? It's really cool. Maybe I just use it as a lava lamp, replace the one I have."
"You... wait, you mean you've just been keeping that size two orb in your room as a night light?" Anesh asked with an incredulous tone, holding his hand out in disbelief. "Why?!"
"It's a nice reminder this is all real, when I'm not wounded." James said. "Anyway, let's pack this up, and get out of here. Oh! And this pen!" He held up the fancy gold and blue metal pen from where it had fallen. "Do. Not. Use. This." He emphasised to Anesh. "We could break it down, but..." He dropped the pen on the floor.
Anesh quirked his head. "Why'd you do that?"
James just sighed. "I contextualized it as a weapon, and I can't carry weapons." He punched himself in the side of the head. "This is getting really stupid." He muttered.
They finished packing up, saying their goodbyes to the little critters that shared their home base. James watched warily as Anesh leaned the boar spear up against one of the walls. That thing made him nervous, since it technically came from the future. At Anesh's insistence, James actually wheeled out the hand cart with all the soda he'd collected. He thought it was a bit silly at this point, but hell, they'd both worked for what they got, so who was he to complain about his friend's choice in loot? He still chuckled a bit as he shouldered the bag weighed down with the massive skill orb.
It was like this; bruised and scraped and cut and shattered, in pain and exhausted, overburdened with the spoils of their victory, that James and Anesh stepped out the door, and back into reality.
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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!