"You're smarter than you look." Anesh said to the stapler spider on the desk in front of him. It wasn't a question. It was spoken with a steeled voice, his brown arms crossed in front of him as he leaned back in the office chair.
Rufus had frozen, legs coming to a halt mid-step. He was carrying one of his little balls of staples, all the teeth pointing like a really nasty burr. Anesh had waited for a while after James and Alanna left, just casually sitting and watching Ganesh's point of view through his phone. Rufus had carried about with what he was doing, pulling about a half dozen of the spiky things out from various drawers, and collecting them on one of the desks. Anesh had waited until he was sure that they'd have some time to talk before he'd started in on talking to the friendly strider.
Anesh waited for a second, and Rufus didn't make any indication of responding, so he said a bit more. "I mean, I'm not accusing you of anything. I'm just observing. You're smarter than a little stapler thing looks." Rufus set down the staple ball that he was holding, and crossed his front pen legs together in front of him in an X. From his chair, Anesh raised an eyebrow. "You're not?" Rufus shook his head, and tapped a single leg on the table in front of him. "Ah, you're exactly as smart as you look, I'm just looking at it wrong."
"Okay, well, that's neat and all, but I've been thinking. And I don't want you to think I'm mad at you, but I have some questions. Concerns, really." The human said.
Rufus started to back away, his single main eye flicking back and forth. This wasn't a conversation he really wanted to have.
That didn't stop Anesh, though. "See, here's the thing. James didn't have any problem talking to me about this place when he first decided to share. It wasn't until right after he brought me in that he had trouble. And I knew about it for about a week beforehand, and I didn't have a problem thinking about telling our other friends. I didn't, sure, but I could have." He looked at Rufus and leaned forward a bit. "So it couldn't have been using the orbs, see?"
Rufus saw. He nodded a bit, bobbing his front up and down. He also took a couple steps back, which Anesh absolutely noticed.
"And of course, there's this last month. Where I haven't been here, but James has. So, the effect must need to be refreshed. Perhaps by this place itself, but, well, how long did it need to make that happen? James was only here briefly. Specifically, he was only in *here*. Do you see where this is going?"
Rufus turned and bolted for the wall.
He didn't get far. Anesh jerked forward and brought his hand down on Rufus's body. "So tell me, small friend. Do you happen to know anything about that?" He asked calmly as he lifted the scrambling, panicked creature up to eye level.
Rufus froze, then slumped a bit. He lifted one of his front legs up to eye level. "Yes?" Anesh asked, and Rufus repeated the motion. "Okay, that's yes. So, I'm going to set you down, and we're going to talk like rational adults, yes?" This got another yes, though a slower one. Anesh nodded, and set the strider down on the desk.
He'd been thinking about this for a little while. There was just no sign that the dungeon itself was alive. Well, that wasn't quite true; there was no sign that it *gave a shit* about Anesh and James. There was no coordinated response to James being here, and nothing changed when he brought Anesh in. There was only one consistent factor in each of their dives, and that was the presence of Rufus. Ganesh as well, but he came later. The fort and their modifications to the environment came later. Every different type of orb came later. It was only Rufus who had been here from the start.
In truth, Anesh hadn't even been sure if there was anything to be suspicious of. But it hadn't taken very much prompting before Rufus bolted, and that was that. Not exactly proof of guilt, but it was enough.
"Oh Rufus." Anesh muttered. "What did you do to us?"
The spider-thing hissed back. Not angry, but insistent. His eye focused on Anesh and stopped flicking around, and Anesh couldn't see anything like guilt there.
He was already frustrated trying to talk to something that couldn't speak. "You didn't do it?" Anesh asked. Rufus hesitated for a minute, then shakily raised his front legs in another X. "You did do it, then?" This got a 'yes' reply. "Okay, just checking. So... this might be a bit of a trick to answer, but... why?"
It was a trick to answer. But Rufus tried. He mimed out walking in with his front two legs, and Anesh nodded, following so far. Then, he did the same thing, twice in quick succession.
"First James, then me?" This got him an affirmative, and he nodded. "With you so far."
Rufus took a second to puzzle out how to 'say' this. It didn't help that he didn't actually know a language. He could understand the concepts and intents of what James and Anesh said, and he could 'read' their notes, in a way, but he was incapable of speaking or writing back. This left only the most awkward game of charades ever as a way to share with Anesh. Tapping around his eye a couple times, he swept his leg around at the ceiling. Then mimed out more and more people walking in, and followed it up with a much more frantic eye tapping.
Anesh rubbed his chin as he watched. "It was getting too crowded for you?" He muttered. "No, that's not right," he said, before Rufus could correct him, "it was getting too crowded, though. Yes? Yes."
Rufus kept tapping his eye, and then frantically waving his legs around at... nothing in particular? It took Anesh a second to get it. "Ah. The dungeon. It watches? No, it *could* be watching. You were afraid we'd attract attention, yes?"
The little stapler slumped down, guilty, and shakily raised a single leg in a 'yes' indication.
"James was fine, because he was just one person. But as soon as he brought me in, you realized that he had other friends, and you didn't want too many of us." Anesh started talking to himself now, as much as Rufus, standing up and pacing. "You're worried that the dungeon will see us? Or at least, something in the dungeon. Does that mean you're hiding out here from something in particular?" Rufus X'd that idea. "Just in general, then?" No response, so Anesh shrugged. "Either way, you didn't want more people, so, you... cursed us."
Rufus shook violently at that, shaking like a dog trying to get water off. Anesh almost laughed at the display, before remembering he was supposed to be angry. "I have no idea what that one means." He said. "Probably that I'm wrong. You didn't curse us? Or it's not a curse?" Rufus quickly made 'yes' and 'no' gestures in succession. "Okay, it's complicated?" Got him a 'yes'.
For a few seconds, there was silence, and then a sigh from Anesh as he palmed his forehead. "This is really quite frustrating." He murmured. "So, you did something to us so we couldn't share, and you must have been refreshing it every now and then, because it's still sort of on James, but it wore off on me. Right? Right. Okay."
He thought it through. There was one thing that was still bugging him. Well, a few things. James, through his skill pickup and actual real world classes, was starting to get a handle on his own mind. And he described the mental coercion as something that felt mobile, almost alive. Fish-shaped thoughts. That, on its own, was worrying. Did that mean that it was alive, and if so, did that mean that the one in his own head had left a fish-thought shaped corpse somewhere in a corner of his mind that he couldn't perceive?
Also nagging at him; how did Rufus even do this in the first place? They'd seen the paper pusher use a purple orb on James, which had added a second little geas to his friend, but they still hadn't figured out where the purple orbs *came* from. Had Rufus had one? Did he have more? How had he gotten it in the first place?
Actually, that lead Anesh back to something else. "Hey, Rufus. James walked out of here armed, even though he wasn't supposed to be able to. I asked him how he was doing it, but he didn't actually respond. Is this also your fault?"
Rufus X'd his legs again, and this time tilted his head a bit in confusion. After a moment of consideration, he threw up his front legs, and scampered over to the desk where Anesh's gear was laid out. Clamping his 'mouth' down on Anesh's hand axe, he dragged it over to the side of the desk. Then, he alternated between tapping it, and stabbing one leg out to point at the boar spear that Anesh had leaning up against their staging area.
"Weapons? Like, collective weapons?" Anesh felt like screaming in annoyance, but he kept calm. Rufus was trying, and that was saying a lot for something that Anesh hadn't really been sure was sapient up until a few minutes ago when he'd accused the little guy of treason. So Anesh thumped his head back against the wall and ran through options in his brain as he watched Rufus struggle to get the message across. "Sharp things. Dangerous things? Sorta dangerous things, okay. Um... oh. Oh! The spear is a bigger weapon?" Rufus signaled he was correct, and Anesh felt like he'd let out a breath he'd been holding for an hour.
The spear was a larger weapon. It was bigger, it was more dangerous, it was... "The other mind control thing, it wasn't as big as yours, was it?"
Rufus reared up and pumped both his front legs in the air, a symbol of triumph and power. If it had been for anything else, Anesh would have smiled, but here...
"It's a predator, is that what it is? They *are* alive, and the one that keeps James from talking fucking ate the other one. You weren't refreshing it at all, it was always going to wear off, it's just that his had another food source."
As soon as he said it, the pieces fell into place. That was why James hadn't even acknowledged his question; the part of his thought space that kept him from holding a weapon had been absorbed (eaten?) by the part that locked out their ability to share information. There was no grand plan, no evil entity at the heart of this place keeping them mute and chained.
There was just a scared kid, and a dumb mistake.
Anesh reached out, hesitantly at first, his hand pausing in motion. But then, with a bit more conviction, he brought it down on Rufus's back. The strider jerked a bit, but then stilled, as Anesh lightly stroked down his spine. He repeated the motion a few more times, settling back into the chair as Rufus crawled over, into Anesh's lap, accepting his pets.
"I get it." He told the strider. "I'm not mad. Don't worry. I'm not mad at you." He reassured himself as much as Rufus. He wasn't mad, though. He wasn't sure what he was. Worried, at least, though for whom he couldn't say.
Composing himself, he pulled out his phone, and started typing. It was time to make a plan, time to find a way to solve some problems. And, Anesh had a feeling, the answers weren't going to be out here on the edges of the dungeon, where reality was still more or less stable. They were going to need to go deeper, which they'd always planned on, but not under the condition of duress.
Item one, find a way to kill a thoughtform. Corollary to item one, think of a clever name for a life form that lived in a human mind. Item two, they needed to learn more about how this place worked. Not just the doors, but the whole system. They didn't have enough data, they'd only seen a few imbued items, a few types of entity, and only a handful of instances of most of the orb colors.
They just needed more data. And yeah, maybe that meant more people; more eyes and minds.
But Anesh was hesitant about that. It wasn't that he thought Rufus was in the right. The small strider, now curled up in his lap like a slightly pointier cat, had still done something pretty awful to both himself and James that had caused them no end of stress, and was still making problems for Anesh's friend and roommate. But from what he gathered, Rufus had acted out of fear. Fear of what, Anesh didn't, and probably couldn't, know just from guessing. But fear of something.
And while it might not take much to make a creature the size of an office tool afraid, Anesh felt like discretion might be the best course of action for now. After all, they'd just brought Alanna in. They may as well take time to get her up to speed before worrying about whether or not to up their party size.
Still, there were some things they could do with just the three of them. And the part that made Anesh's blood sing in his veins was also the easiest part: more orbs. More data points for the spreadsheet, meant they'd just have to acquire and use more and more of those mysterious balls of light and flavor.
What a sacrifice they'd be making for science, Anesh thought to himself with humorous sarcasm.
No matter what, though, they had limited time in here every week. If they were going to be exploring further and further, they needed to be making more efficient paths. He and James had talked before about bringing a couple bikes in here and clearing straight lines through the cubicles in some of the outer areas, and judging by the fact that the cubicles they'd already moved didn't respawn or reset, Anesh thought that would probably work fine. Just getting to the bathrooms last time had taken them almost two hours of careful walking, and then a half hour light jog back, and that wasn't even counting the time spent trapped in a spatial warp.
If they could cut that time down, they could spend a lot more time actually pressing forward. Hell, just having better maps would be helpful. Anesh added a line to his to-do list: make some larger posters of the maps they had to hang up around Fort Door.
Oh, there was another thing to check; what was behind the door. Maybe Anesh could talk to James about lining up some time off from their respective responsibilities, and camping here for a week together. That might be reckless, though, without knowing in advance what was there. Still, it would only be a week, since apparently the time dilation was flexible over the course of the day.
And of course, there was still the matter of the money.
It turned out, money was useful. For Anesh, being able to bank enough to pay for his school without needing to worry about whether or not he could get enough loans next year was immense. He didn't come from a rich background, and even getting to this part of the States was an exercise in scraping money together. He'd thought before about the process of strip-mining this place for material and wealth, but now, he wondered if the rewards deeper in would be large enough from some very specific goals. Could they get enough together to buy the building James worked in? Or at least lease out the single floor that the portal was on.
Did the building even lease floor to floor, or was it owned by the same company? Another note for things to figure out on that one.
Regardless, he couldn't rule out the idea that there might be a briefcase with a million pounds in it somewhere deeper in. Or an orange that gave them the deed to the property. Was that something they could do? They'd given legal statuses, so far; was 'ownership' a legal status? His list of questions was getting too long, and he was starting to get a headache. James had originally said that he wanted Anesh in on this whole thing because he was more analytical, but this wasn't exactly the kind of information processing Anesh was good at. He liked math, and physics. He worked with numbers, hard data, taking it apart and putting it back together. His strong suit wasn't in asking lateral thinking questions.
Really, that was Alanna's thing. It was how she ended up throwing every D&D game they played into turmoil. Just a simple recontextualization of a situation that Anesh didn't catch when he'd planned it out. Maybe he'd offload his notes onto her and just let her take care of it, so he could focus more on tag-teaming laser-squid-computers with James.
Hell, this place led to weird sentences in his thoughts.
He sighed as he stood up and cracked his fingers, sending Rufus skittering onto the floor. "Okay." He spoke aloud to himself. "Time for some light exercise. Come on, Rufus. We're gonna go see if we can disarm a couple burnouts, and you're my backup." The stapler looked at Anesh with an expression that he would almost describe as apprehension, letting out a small whine. "Oh, come on. It'll be fun. I'll give you half of any orbs we find, and I really don't want to go out alone. We'll just go along the wall, okay? No going deeper in." He cajoled the strider.
Rufus shuddered a bit, then conceded, and gave a small nodding bob. Even after finding him out, Anesh was still being friendly. If he was angry, he wasn't showing it to Rufus, and the stapler didn't know how to feel about it. He'd never wanted to hurt the two, especially not James, but he acknowledged that his actions weren't the actions of a good friend. But Anesh, it seemed, had already forgiven him; or was at least willing to set it aside. So, he would be a good friend now.
It also didn’t hurt that he’d possibly earn a few more orbs for his backup cache. Rufus wasn’t the best long term planner, but he understood the concept of value. And he had what he felt was a small fortune saved up and hidden around the area. This would be a safer way to add to it than how he’d gotten some of them to begin with.
Skittering over to where Anesh was strapping on his old football pads, Rufus carried up the last thermos of coffee and plonked it down on the desk. Anesh smiled a bit. "Thanks, friend." He said as he clipped one of the radios to his belt loop and picked up the remaining axe.
The words sparked off a warm feeling in Rufus. Friend. Yes. He could do that. He could be that. He'd been hiding here for too long. If his humans, no, his friends, were going to keep going back in, well, it was the least that Rufus could do to go with them.
So it was that he and Anesh set off, Rufus racing ahead of the lanky human. Even though he was the shortest of the three, Anesh still towered over the stapler, so Rufus had to put some effort into moving to stay ahead of him. But Rufus had a lot of experience in skittering at high speeds from place to place, and he was a bit too awkwardly shaped to perch on Anesh's shoulder like Ganesh could do with grace.
So he ran, and he kept watch, and he and Anesh explored. Rufus had never explored this place before, even though he was born here, and expected to die here. He'd only ever survived. Never seen it with wondering eyes the way Anesh did. But he tried, now. And even though it might not have worked perfectly, it made him feel something every time his friend made an excited noise or asked what something was in that way that meant that he didn't expect an answer from anyone but himself.
And when the two of them began heading back an hour later, Rufus shared the feeling of triumph that Anesh had in his chest. The coffee was gone, the axe had a chip in it, Anesh had an angry red mark on his arm where a bit of molten glass had briefly landed, and Rufus had lost the bottom half of one of his legs. But they carried with them three red orbs, six yellows, one blue they'd accidentally gotten, a set of earbuds that Anesh was thrilled to discover could not tangle, and the thing that Rufus himself had found.
A pair of sunglasses. He'd poked at them while Anesh had been trying to do something with the computer in that cubicle. When Rufus had bent down to look through one of the lenses, he'd seen the world in a blur of colors that he'd never experienced before. After getting over the headache that instantly gave him, and almost falling off the desk, he'd brought them over to Anesh, who had quickly made the connection. They saw the world in infrared. But unlike a heatmap, they didn't translate it into reds and blues; it actually expanded his range of vision.
Anesh joined Rufus in his headache. But this was something important; something that could be more than just useful, but life-altering. They'd gone in the bag, and Anesh had promised Rufus an extra orb for his discovery.
So the two of them walked back with confidence. A couple minor crises battled together; a skirmish fought, traps disarmed, and loot pilfered. Rufus felt like the king of the world, and Anesh smiled as he watched the injured strider move with a bit of swagger in front of him as he strolled back toward Fort Door.
It had been a good day so far.
Anesh just hoped James and Alanna were doing as well.
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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!