There was a muffled roar, and a thump. James checked down the hall to his left and right before turning to look inside the cubicle that he'd had his back to. He'd been keeping watch while Alanna checked out the interiors of some of the cubes, giving small hints where needed on how to quickly scour the small rooms for money and targeted high value items. Honestly, he'd kind of forgotten that most people didn't instinctively have looting patterns and search tactics burned into their minds.
Probably a result of spending too much time with Anesh in here, and not enough time in reality *not* trying to maximize the value of his haul.
But here, these were important things to internalize. Grab small stuff and cash every time; if it's easy to carry and worth it, don't skip it. But know that on the way out, it's easy to fill your bag with extra stuff. Random pens, notebooks, computer hardware, digital clocks, desk toys, whatever. These things weren't usually worth anything, but sometimes they might have a blue in them, or have incremental value just because every now and then, you wanted a pen or a Newton's cradle for your desk.
So James tried to give Alanna space to learn without being overbearing. He knew how easy it was to get angry when a teacher spent too much time telling you that you were wrong.
Now, though, he heard her yelling and things breaking, so he moved to assist.
What he saw through the door was her scattering papers and a keyboard onto the floor as she reached across the desk to grab at the handle of her sledgehammer, left leaning against some drawers on the far side. Looking down at the source of the thump he'd heard, James saw a single strider, upside down on the floor, legs twitching like a panicked turtle unable to right itself.
Alanna, though, looked more than a little flustered. Her helmet was tilted a bit, and James put together a quick chain of events in his head. It had dive bombed her, probably from the taller stack of cubbies on the desk, and she'd panicked and flung it. Simple, but then, the office chair and its perilous wheeled form had tripped her up as she went for a weapon. James nodded as he watched her scramble to right herself. Good response time, really.
"Are you okay?" He casually asked as he slammed his heel down on the stapler crab, snapping half its legs off and splintering the more brittle chitin of its underbelly.
Alanna looked up, panting a bit, hammer in her hands, just in time to see James reach down and snap up the yellow orb that had dropped from the corpse. "What the fuck?!" She demanded.
"It's a stapler crab. Well, they're more like stapler spiders, really. Striders, for short. Though we waffle a bit on that name." James pocketed the orb for later, just in case Rufus or Ganesh needed one. "Wait, hang on. You met Rufus, you've seen these before!"
"It wasn't trying to kill me!" She snapped back.
James nodded, taking the smile off his face. "Yeah. I understand. It's not easy to get used to at first. Are you hurt?"
She checked herself for injuries. "My head stings from where it hit, but no, it didn't bite me."
"Alright, good. Let's finish up here and move on." He said, turning back to the door. "I'm gonna make sure that the noise didn't call a horde, so try to be a little quieter. You would have been fine without me, remember that." He stepped back outside and slightly to the left, keeping the door clear and also putting himself out of her line of sight.
James sighed. He was really trying to not just tell Alanna things that she already knew. He knew she was a fast learner, and she paid attention in a weird active way that caused her to catch stuff that James would have missed unless it was spelled out. She probably already figured out that keeping her weapon closer at hand and more stable was smart. She probably was already learning to move in the bulkier armor sets they were in, which James was working on himself. And she probably already figured out that yelling wasn't helpful.
But maybe not? He didn't know. He just didn't want to piss off his teammate this early into the delve, especially not when they'd just gotten back in. He'd talk to her about it later if it came up again; though he suspected it wouldn't.
"Ready." Alanna said, stepping out and putting her backpack on again. She looked like she'd taken a deep breath to compose herself, and James nodded approvingly.
"Alright. So, we haven't been down this particular aisle before, so most of the cubes should be untouched. But if we go a little deeper, we can try to find one of the water cooler spaces and pick a fight with a plant, or see if we can find another iLipede nest so we can hunt down enchanted items. Your call, really." He offered up a couple of options from his own mental quest log.
Alanna took another breath, closing her eyes briefly. Letting out a hum, she looked down the length of the corridor, the cubicle walls rapidly gaining height here and giving the appearance of a very thin staircase. "I kind of want to just keep exploring, see what happens. Though if you see any monsters, please let me know so I can actually hit them before they see me."
"Can do!" James saluted with a grin. His expression drooped a bit as Alanna just rolled her eyes and started moving down the hall. James gave a soft sigh, and muttered to Ganesh, "I think I liked doing this with your human more. He appreciated banter. Appreciates. Appreciates banter, he's not dead." James corrected himself when Ganesh tapped on his helmet.
He followed after Alanna, moving as quietly as he could and trying to get used to the bulkier padding that Anesh had bought for them. It certainly felt protective, but James couldn't shake the feeling that he was one awkward step away from knocking furniture over by accident.
The one thing that Alanna did do well, James took a second to appreciate, was the actual teamwork part of this. Since they weren't really looting specifically, it was mostly just moving and keeping an eye out, but she took to their simple system of shoulder taps and leapfrog movements easily. James started to get comfortable with her as they quietly pressed on, marking the few turns they took and occasionally poking into a cubicle to look through coat pockets.
It was shortly after Alanna happily pocketed a twenty dollar bill from one of those stops that James started to get suspicious.
"There aren't enough hostiles around here." He murmured to her as they came to an intersection. And there hadn't been, at all. Aside from that first strider, there hadn't been anything in this section of the dungeon.
Alanna scanned the area, eyes moving deliberately and methodically. Mostly checking the tops of cubicle walls. "Doesn't look like anything is following us or watching." She said. "Do we keep going, or turn back?"
It was a good question, and James took a second to consider the options. There was really no good reason to turn back aside from it feeling a little weirder than normal. But going forward was risky, and a little extra weird might just be the end of them. Still, his sense of adventure called. In some ways, the possible risk stirred something in his chest that drew him forward. "We keep going." He said confidently. "We've only taken three turns, you know the way back if we need to run, right?"
"Right." Alanna nodded.
James took the lead, moving toward the upcoming intersection. They were approaching from the side this time, and he could see only the black monolith of the vending machine from this angle, a small garbage can sitting next to it. He tapped his helmet. "Ganesh, go see if there's a plant on the other side. Just crawl over the top, don't risk getting caught."
He set the drone on the floor from the palm of his hand, and it scurried forward. The more Alanna saw the thing walk, the more it reminded her of a praying mantis, using folded forearms to guide its walking and somehow climbing the side of the vending machine as if it were a lizard. "How are we supposed to know if there is one?" she asked James. "The drone can't talk."
"He's smart, he can nod or shake his head." James quietly responded. "If there is a plant, then I'll go in and distract it; you'll just need to land a good hit on the base with the hammer, then break the big red thing in there."
Alanna snorted. "The plants have weak spots?"
"The plants have hearts. They come in a lot of shapes, but always geometric. Kinda fleshy, too, so don't kick it unless you have to." He told her. Alanna nodded. Weak spots were a video game concept; organs were real. This was something that she could deal with.
They both watched Ganesh approach, and look over the edge of the vending machine. James waited for him to turn around and give a signal, but their insectile companion instead jerked back, rotors flaring to life with a low buzz. Not fast enough, though, as the edge of a large leaf came up over the edge and just scooped Ganesh up, rolling him in greenery before dragging back over the other side.
James was already moving, heart suddenly racing. Ganesh wasn't really his friend or anything, not the same way Anesh or even Alanna was, but he was a reliable ally, and he really seemed to care about Anesh, if not James himself. James couldn't imagine letting the little guy get hurt, and he didn't even think before he had his axe in hand and was rushing forward, closing the thirty or so feet to the vending machine, moving fast enough that he had the momentum to slide around it and lash out blindly at where he assumed the plant would be.
He wasn't wrong. But this plant was bigger than anything they'd seen before. It looked like a cross between an agave and an areca palm, all thick and spiky leaves, with a couple of massive fronds sprouting out its sides. The fern branches that split off from its main trunk were dozens of thin strips of green, each one looking razor sharp, and it was one of those that James caught with his surprise attack. The axe cut deep into the main branch, and he couldn't tell from the feel if he'd hit wood or plastic, but either way he'd pinned one of the offshoots and snipped it clean off.
It wasn't enough, though, and the other branches and the spikey leaves at the base, all turned to him as soon as the plant recovered from its shock. James was already rolling to his feet, taking another swing. He'd pulled back a bit too hard and so his hand axe was slightly too far out of position for the follow up strike to be perfect, but he slammed it forward with enthusiasm, and managed to smash another one of the razor fern branches before it could lash out at him.
Then, one of the succulent leaves near the base exploded into motion. It must have been hiding quite a bit in the root system of that large ceramic pot, because while each of the leaves only looked maybe a foot long, it was about six feet of solid, waxy green that slammed into James' chest. Lifting him up just a bit off his feet, and almost casually *flicking* him down the intersecting hall. He barely had time to register that it had hit him before he was flat on his back.
Coughing wetly, dragging air back into his lungs after the breath was knocked out of him, James staggered back up. He wasn't done, not by a long shot. He couldn't let this thing just take Ganesh like an afternoon snack. He rushed back forward, seeing that the plant was ready for him. It had pulled the frond containing Ganesh around to the front, a hostage to keep James from attacking too viciously, but that wasn't what he was going for this time. To his right, up against the front of the vending machine, Alanna stood with the heavy hammer raised up in a two handed grip, waiting. So James ran in, and at the last second, skidded to a near stop. When the plant lashed out at him, he wrapped one of his arms around the tendril that now had far less force behind its strike than expected. Throwing himself backward, James pinned the plant, keeping it stretched out and pulling him upright to avoid tipping over itself.
Alanna took advantage of the situation. There wasn't much space to maneuver between the huge soda dispenser and the plant's pot base, but she made it work. Kicking down with a large step to help pin the tendril that had assaulted James, the plant tipped forward just a bit, and that gave Alanna just the opening needed to bring the hammer down along its left side. Ferns and branches snapped off, the unfolded leaf ripped down the side, and one of the succulent tendrils at the bottom sprayed a juicy pulp across the floor as the hammer crashed to a stop on it. But despite damaging it, she'd ignored James' advice to go for the heart, and it wasn't nearly dead.
Lurching back upright, the plant shot a half dozen razor fern branches outward with surprising speed, the first one catching Alanna right in the face. She howled in pain, dropping the hammer and bringing her hands up to protect her head as she staggered backward, but the distance wasn't enough. The ferns seemed to get longer and longer as she backpedaled, harassing her with their bladed edges, though no more of them landing hits as she kept her guard up.
Through this, Ganesh wasn't idle. He'd struggled to reorient, trapped in the plant's overly large frond. But as soon as he got some stability, he started stabbing with the spike that made up his main eye. Small cuts started cleaving their way through the leaf, and soon, he could turn one of the small holes into a large rift, bursting free and firing his rotors to turn a fall into a takeoff. James he saw was on the ground now, keeping about half of the plant's actual firepower tied up, shouting at Alanna to kill the damn thing. But Alanna was having some trouble, though not a threatening amount. Ganesh made a decision, and swooped to assist James. As he did so, though, one of the razor ferns diverted from its attack, bending in midair in a disturbing angular motion, and flying toward Ganesh.
The drone was tough, but his chitin and plastic plating was not enough to withstand many of the high speed and absurdly sharp hits that an enemy like this could dish out. Still disoriented, he was focused on getting to James, and didn't see the strike coming.
Alanna did, though.
Dropping half her guard and stopping her retreat, Alanna lunged forward, a hand in a thick glove lashing out and clamping down on the branch. Another of the ferns quivered and rushed forward to her unprotected eyes, but with a snarl, she ducked it and *yanked* on the branch in hand, snapping it off and peeling a good strip of bark away from the main trunk as she did so. Without the time to get a good grip, she whipped the branch back at the other attachers, and was surprised to see many of the little strips of fern go flying away as they cut themselves to shreds. Now with forward momentum, Alanna was able to get a hand on the dropped sledgehammer before pulling backward, keeping her head down.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw James hacking away at the vine he was holding, trying to separate it from the main body. She also saw Ganesh, a blur of motion, dive on and snip off one of the smaller razor fern twigs with his front claws as it had rushed to catch her blind spot. With no time to think, Alanna plowed forward into the plant, taking a solid hit from one of the thicker vine leaves on her shoulder, before she could bring the hammer down in a golfer's swing and crack open the side of the pot, leaving a neat ceramic spider web around the hold her hit made.
Ganesh was already there as she pulled back. With an angry hum, he flitted down through the damaged plant's branches, before crawling into the exposed hole. Alanna would have watched with fascination, but that tendril that had hit her shoulder earlier came around on the backswing and slammed into the side of her head as she tried to catch her breath, slamming her sideways to trip over the vine that James was hacking at. She kicked backward, and felt her foot hit something, but before she could worry about if it was going to make another attack, the whole plant went limp.
James sighed in relief as it withered and died, as much as a plastic plant could. "Okay, that could have gone better." He said with a groan as he stood up. "You okay?"
Alanna was not okay. Actual combat did not agree with her, it seemed, and she slumped forward on the ground where she'd landed, trembling as the adrenaline wore off. It took an effort of will not to throw up.
After a couple minutes or so, she raised her head to see James had already plopped his backpack on the floor, pulled out the medkit, and was unwrapping small bandages. It took her a second to realize that they were for her own face.
"Why the hell do you do this?" She asked him as he dabbed blood from a cut just under her eye. "That was fucking insane. Ten seconds decided if we lived or died!"
"But we lived." He said. "I know how you feel. Really. It's part of why I do this, I guess." James looked a little sheepish as he admitted to it. "Honestly, I like testing myself this way. Feeling like I'm really being challenged. But no, the big reason is that." He pointed to where Ganesh had crawled out of the damaged pot, pushing a size two skill orb in front of him. "That."
Well, that, and a promise to Anesh. And another promise to the undercurrent creature thing that he was sharing his headspace with. But that first one was pretty personal, and the second one he didn't think he actually could talk about. Negotiations had only gone so far with the fish-shaped thought-form when he'd met it in a dream the other night. Alanna didn't need to know that, though. What she needed now was reassurance that this was *worth it*.
So James indicated the skill orb.
Alanna looked down as best she could without flinching while James stuck a bandage on her cheek. "It can't be worth it. This hurts so bad." Her voice cracked a bit as the stinging pain from a half dozen cuts crept in.
James nodded. "This was a pretty bad one, I admit. But here, you tell me. Is this worth it?" He plucked the orb up, and held it out in one hand to her. She looked at it suspiciously before taking it in her own still-gloved hand.
"Do I need to do anything special?" Alanna asked as she peered into the slightly luminescent orb. "Like, is skin contact required? Any magic words or thoughts?"
"Nope." James replied, packing back up. "Just crack it. I think you could technically step on it? Maybe the intent is required, since I've stepped on one before and it didn't break. Doesn't make sense that it's only the hand though. That's... not really the point." He trailed off. "You can just squeeze it. Go ahead. See if this is enough to make you want to come back."
Alanna applied light pressure, giving the orb a firm press with her hand. A second later, it popped with a violent outburst that made her blink, but somehow had no pressure to it. And then, for the first time, she had an obviously alien, politely intrusive thought echo through her head.
[+2 Skill Ranks : Snowboarding - Jumps]
James raised his eyebrows at her, apprehensive but also curious.
There was a very long pause, the only noise the sound of Ganesh's claws clinking against metal as he climbed back onto James' helmet.
"Okay." Alanna broke the quiet. "Let's go find another plant."
A grin spread across James' face to match the one his friend now wore.
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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!