The trio sat in office chairs they'd pulled up into a triangle, leaned back and staring up at the tree. They'd taken about fifteen minutes, just relaxing, watching the colors dance. It was also a good chance to rest, sip water, and munch on one of the slightly smushed sandwiches Anesh had packed.
"We should probably consider getting up." James said, cracking his knuckles.
Anesh and Alanna groaned as they streched out sore muscles, nodding. Sitting forward, Alanna rolled on the balls of her feet and stood up. "Okay, where to now, guys?" She raised her arms up and did a few jumps, flexing stiff legs. "Do we go..."
She cut off as Anesh started making a distressed series of "Um!" noises. James looked up from where he was zipping up his bag, and Alanna glanced down from her check of the hall, to see him wildly jabbing a finger up at the tree they'd been sitting under.
The monitors were glowing, but as they watched, an increasing number of them dropped the screensaver, replacing the dancing colors with text on a black background. "Out." The first one James saw said.
"Well that's kinda rude..." He started to say, before more and more monitors flickered to text.
"Farther." "Wait." The two other big screens said. Then smaller ones started shifting, and James had to squint a bit to see them. "Use resources." "Damage tree." "Rest." "Scout." "Infighting." And then smaller and smaller words on other blooms that James could no longer read.
James and Alanna looked at each other as Anesh fell backward out of his chair. James helped him up while Ganesh buzzed around their heads, hauling his friend back to his feet while trying not to laugh.
"Okay, calm down." Alanna said. "Is this thing reading our minds?"
Anesh spoke up. "I was considering all of those things." He said. "I was going to ask you guys if you wanted to go farther or back to the entrance. I was also thinking of eating one of the candy bars, shut up, don't judge me." James closed his mouth and put his hand down. "So, maybe it's reading our minds? Is that... a problem? Is it going to kill us?"
“You were considering infighting?” James asked, and in answer, Anesh lightly whapped him on the head with a desk ruler.
Looking up at the tree, Alanna reached over and rapped her knuckles on the trunk that spread down to the cubicle they were all in. It felt like just thick rubber, and the organism itself didn't react at all. "Well, what do we do about it?" She said.
The monitors started changing. "Investigate." "Leave." "Unnecessary Violence."
"Oh!" James said, as Alanna narrowed her eyes at the tree and looked around for her hammer. "Wait! No need for unnecessary violence!" He reached out to hold her back as she stepped forward and started looking for somewhere to stand on the desk. "It's a decision tree!"
Alanna let out a pained groan, while Anesh clenched his fists and simply asked. "What the hell are you talking about, and why do you have to hurt words like that?"
"It's showing us options!" James said, making a logical leap to the idea. "We asked what we should do, and it's showing us what our choices could be! Watch, and I hope this works or I look like an idiot: Which of us should get the next skill orb?" He asked to the tree.
"Alanna." "James." "Anesh." Came the responses, and then the smaller screens started spelling out; "The one most hurt." "Nobody." and "Rufus."
"Why is Ganesh not up there? That hardly seems fair." Anesh asked, and Ganesh buzzed agreement on his shoulder. "Wait, hang the fuck on, does that say, 'the survivor'? That's not okay! I don't like this tree anymore!" He loudly grumbled.
James snapped his fingers. "Okay, I'm calling dibbs on naming this one. It's a decision tree, I'm hilarious, and let's get out of here before we find out it's actually mind controlling us."
"Agreed!" Alanna and Anesh echoed together.
"I really don't understand why this is here." Alanna grumbled, eyeing the plant with suspicion.
James shrugged. "Why is anything in the dungeon here?" He asked in response.
"That's kind of a worrying attitude to take." She replied. "I mean you guys had a theory that this place is a kind of ecosystem, yeah? Well, if that's the case, and this thing fills the slot of plant life, what exactly is it feeding off of? How does it grow? Why did it evolve that way?"
"Oh, no way anything here evolved this way." Anesh said smoothly.
James made a *pff* noise, dismissing Anesh's comment before answering Alanna. "I mean, it has those little things crawling on it. Maybe it's a symbiotic thing? Wait, no. Rufus and Ganesh both eat the skill orbs, they need them to keep going. Maybe the tree... produces them? That can't be right..." He trailed off, lost in thought.
"Yeah, see, it's *weird*." Alanna threw up both her hands to gesture to the tree. "We have no idea what it does, but we're sitting here staring at it! What if it's eating *us*!"
"It's not, though. It's just waiting for us to decide if we're leaving or not. Maybe that's what it eats?" Anesh suggested.
"What, decisions? Like, we make the decision, and it eats it, and we just stay here?" James narrowed his eyes. "If that's the case, I'm considering going back to the unnecessary violence plan."
Anesh laughed and shook his head. "No, like, it eats... what the decision means? Also, if it ate it and we were still here, we would have decided to stay here, which is..."
"Nope!" Alanna cut in. "Got a headache now! Thanks! Let's just get out of here before it actually decides it's sick of us and sends the lizards down to eat us."
They finished packing up quickly, and Rufus and Ganesh didn't stop keeping an eye on the tree until the humans shouldered their bags and turned to go.
As they walked out, Anesh looked back briefly to see one of the small six legged things moving down the trunk, walking almost vertically. It's exterior appeared to be scales of flashing color, just like the monitors blooming overhead. As he watched, it shifted to a darker grey, blending in a bit with the cord trunk that it walked on.
"I'm calling those monitor lizards." He said, pointing. "And both of you can shut it. If James gets to make puns, I get to make puns. Those are the rules." He said with an amount of satisfaction as he took the lead and began walking ahead of the other two.
Alanna leaned down to mutter to James, "If you stop making puns, we can end this now, and I won't even need to punch anyone."
"No deal." He responded, shaking his head sadly. "I'm already addicted."
"What the hell was that?" James asked to himself. Or maybe to Rufus.
The duo were scouting a slightly different direction from Anesh and Alanna. They'd come to a three way intersection recently, and had decided it was a good chance to safely split up. They'd dropped their bags there, and headed down the different corridors, with the agreement to come back in fifteen minutes or as soon as they had to take more than one turn.
They'd taken one turn so far, and down the exceptionally long aisle that he'd found in front of him, James could see the tile floor and uncomfortable plastic chairs of a break room. It was far away, but having seen one before, he could recognize what it was.
What he couldn't recognize, though, was the thing moving past the door, out of his line of sight. It was too far away for him to hear anything, and it didn't look messy enough to be a tumblefeed. But something about it set his hair on end. Maybe it was the fact that it was a monster he didn't recognize in some kind of magical kill-office. Or maybe he was just being paranoid.
Either way, he radioed Anesh and Alanna to let them know what was up, and that he was turning around. The response he got was that they were checking out something in a cubicle, and they'd be back shortly. James kind of wanted to go join them, but he also didn't want to turn his back on what might be a hostile right now.
He thought for a moment, and then knelt down to tap Rufus on the head. "Hey. Can you keep watch down here for a minute? I'm going to see if there's anything worth grabbing in that cube." Rufus raised one of his legs in a mock salute, and James smiled. "Thanks, friend." He stood back up, and moved over to the cubicle, trying to sneak in as best he could in the thick armor.
The armor had so far probably saved him at least a pint of blood and half an elbow. But no matter how durable it was, or how invincible it made him feel, that didn't make it any easier to move in. Though, the incident with the pencil trap had made him feel a little more realistic about how much this thing improved his survival chances. Which was to say; a bit, but not an infinite amount.
Probably the worst thing that could happen to any of them was if they started believing they were invincible.
Maybe James would see if he could convince Anesh to buy some chainmail to cover the areas that weren't hard plastic. Functional, *and* he'd get to look like a riot control officer took levels in cleric.
Shrugging off that line of thinking, he stepped into the cubicle. A quick check showed no obvious desk lamps or coffee cups. A quick mental check showed that, yeah, that was kind of an odd sentence for James to have to run through. He stepped up to the desk and started poking through things. This one was messy, something they didn't see very often.
At this point, James and Anesh had plundering down to almost a science. At least, when they were just doing a quick scour like he was to kill some time. Money, valuables, food, in that order. Purses or wallets? Check them. Are there coats or dry cleaning? Check them. Then start going through the drawers, don't go too fast, can't rule out traps at this point. Or just iLipedes waiting to ambush. They hadn't seen them be hostile yet, but anything was possible.
After finding sixty bucks in ones and fives tucked in various places around the desk, James was a bit frustrated. That was offset a bit by the fact that he was sixty bucks richer, but this was the first time he'd had to pull a dollar bill out from where it was wedged behind a shelf against the cube wall, and it was a lot less convenient than having it all piled up neatly in a wallet for him. The computer, he'd confirmed not-alive, but also not-useful, as it wasn't logged in, and he'd be damned if he was going to go password hunting in this mess.
The one thing he found that instantly caught his attention was when he accidentally knocked a cup of pens and pencils onto the floor, and one pencil just... didn't fall. It spilled out of the cup, sure, but it sat there, about four feet off the ground, unmoving. James tried moving it, and found that unlike the stupid handbag from a couple weeks ago, it was quite easy to move around. It even felt like it had weight in his hand. It just... didn't... fall.
So sixty bucks and a magic item. He knew Anesh, and now Alanna, were trying to think up some kind of cool term for these things that wasn't "magic", but James knew the truth. If there was magic in the world, it was, in part, imbued into this pencil, and he was going to call it that no matter what. Still a pretty good haul for a quick stop.
He stepped back out with a grin, to see Rufus about to get eaten.
The strider was standing exactly where James had left him, keeping watch down the hall. Like, actually exactly. His single frontal eye still focused down the path where James had asked him to keep an eye out while he did a bit of looting. And rearing up above him, perhaps the size of an adult dog, was a snake, about to strike.
James instantly classified it as a snake, but it also reminded him of a tumblefeed if it were woven together. A main body, sinuous and thick, made of cables that flexed like muscles and bulged as it rippled forward. Its spine was lined with red LEDs, and James hoped to hell they weren't what it used for eyes. The mouth at its front that sat open, raised above Rufus and about to come crashing down, had what looked like a dozen needle-sharp quill pens for teeth.
What really made his skin crawl, though, was that instead of anything resembling a face, the creature had its head cables wrapped around the boxy shape of a security camera. It was an older model, not one of the sleek new ones you could find in a shopping mall or grocery store, but the kind of bulky, grey metal that he still saw in his own office. The thick lens pushing out down the creature's snout, fixated on Rufus, twisting in and out of focus.
James let out a terrified yell of "No!" Lunging forward, he whipped a fist toward the thing, just hoping to put it off balance long enough to arm himself and kill it. He assumed it had poisoned Rufus already, because the strider wasn't moving, and James could only hope his little friend wasn't dead.
The snake bobbed its head around to look at him as James moved in. And as soon as that camera lens locked onto his face, he froze, mid-lunge. The yell died in his throat, his fist refused to move forward, and it was lucky his feet were planted with good form, or he would have toppled over. Screaming in his head, James found he couldn't move, at all. None of his muscles responded, he couldn't even blink. The snake, the *basilisk*, closed in on him, slithering up and pulling itself to full height so that it was only about a head shorter than James' eye level. It tilted it's "head" back and forth, as if examining him, before letting out a pleased hiss and opening its mouth wide. James looked in horror as teeth the size of his fingers got ready to rip into him, and he was sure the armor wasn't rated for this kind of hit.
Rufus stapled the snake's tail.
The strider, no longer being watched, had exploded into motion as soon as James distracted it. He was going to run, but seeing James now frozen like he was, he turned back and moved straight for the end of the corded serpent. Slamming his metal 'teeth' down, he left three staples buried in the monster before it started thrashing and slapped him away with a movement of its tail.
It turned, hiss-screaming at Rufus as he got its attention, freezing Rufus mid-escape. And as soon as it did, James jerked forward, no longer held paralyzed. He recovered as fast as he could, and brought a knee up into the snake's mouth from where it was trying to threaten Rufus away. One of the teeth caught above the knee-guard of the armor and slipped in, cutting through cloth like nothing at just the wrong angle. But it didn't cut James, just sat there, reminding him of how stupid that was. Another tooth snapped off, and the snake's head whipped back up as he put a lot of force behind the blow.
Of course, now it was looking at him again, and he again found he couldn't move as his hand tried desperately to pull his axe. Rufus again charged it, but this time, got hit away casually, and the basilisk didn't tilt its security camera head away from James.
"Well shit." He tried to say, but couldn't move his mouth. He watched Rufus scale the far wall of the hallway as the snake approached him more carefully, not wanting to get hit again. James started forming a plan for when it looked away, mentally tensing himself to move since he couldn't physically get ready. And when Rufus launched himself, chittering fiercely, and the snake turned its head around like an owl to stop him in midair and send him crashing to the ground, James lurched forward.
He clamped one hand around the base of the snake's "neck", and the other one grabbed onto the base of the camera. "Rufus! Go get the others!" He shouted as the snake rolled backward and slammed him into the ground.
He wrestled with the basilisk while the strider rushed off. Rolling over, he felt a brief burst of paralysis as his hand slipped in front of the lens. Then he slammed his weight down on top of it, hoping to break something. But it just lashed its tail and body around, coiling around one of James' legs, yanking him off balance.
He felt his grip starting to slip, his fingers screaming in protest at the force of his grip, but he refused to let go. James knew what happened if he let go. So, he used what he'd seen alligator wranglers do, and kept pressure on its head and neck, not letting it twist, not letting it get its fangs around to his neck, or into his hands.
He also kept knee dropping into it whenever their turning took him the right way. The one advantage team human had in this match was knees, and he planned to abuse the hell out of it, he thought as he drove down on one of the LEDs hard enough that something popped.
It couldn't last, though. James was getting tired, and the basilisk wasn't. It was going to get free in just a minute, and he had to hope Rufus had been fast enough.
"James!" Came the most glorious shout he'd ever heard, as Anesh and Alanna came around the corner, moving fast enough that he had trouble tracking them visually, Rufus skittering along the floor behind them.
James pinned the snake's head to the floor with one last burst of effort. "Help! Stab it! Don't let it look at you!" He tried to gasp out as it bucked him off.
Anesh was there, lunging forward with his boar spear, but then simply halting in the middle of his thrust as the writhing cableform creature got its head up and stared him down. Was this what he'd looked like, James wondered, when he got frozen? It was a strange effect. All forward momentum just gone, even though he was moving fast enough to blur; that probably broke at least one physical law.
With Anesh suddenly not moving, Alanna almost ran into him as she stepped to the side to bring her hammer down. The snake twisted, finding its own inner reserve of strength, and threw James back with a whip of its length, his head crashing into the wall behind them. The basilisk snapped its gaze between Alanna and Anesh, making sure neither of them could advance, as it tried to move back. It was on the retreat now, and they could have just safely let it run.
But James was pissed now. It had tried to eat Rufus. It had tried to kill his friend. Unacceptable. He wasn't the vengeful type, but that was behavior that couldn't be allowed.
Unclipping his axe, he sat forward. He didn't have time to stand up or get a good angle before it would be past him, so, he just put as much momentum as possible into one long chop, keeping his arm straight and his aim as good as he could manage. The snake didn't see it coming, which was good for two reasons. His blade buried itself at the base of its neck, and it started thrashing wildly. Anesh and Alanna found themselves with a lot more freedom of movement, as James hauled himself forward by the handle, grabbed at the camera, and pulled it up to view the ceiling.
A few seconds later, Anesh plunged the spear into its chest, stripping cables and fraying wires as he cut down the middle. Alanna moved around to the side, bringing the hammer down on its back, a little closer to James than he was comfortable with, but still more or less well aimed. LEDs broke, but the snake kept thrashing.
"The camera!" James gasped, still with the wind knocked out of him from the hit. "Gonna let go, hit it!" He signaled Alanna, who nodded and got ready.
James pulled the camera toward him, forcing the snake to look at him, and not the other two. As soon as too much of him was in its vision, he locked up again, and it easily slipped through his fingers. It started to let out a hiss as it lunged forward for his throat. But then, looking like the most amazing baseball player James had ever seen, Alanna brought the sledgehammer in a huge swing right through the snake's camera eye, knocking the whole assembly out of its head with a tearing of wires and a cracking of glass.
And that was that. It died silently, and James sighed in relief as he lay back on the floor, half the heavy weight of its cables still on his legs.
Then there were some words exchanged around him that he didn't quite catch, and a few loud thuds and slamming noises that made him look up. Anesh and Alanna were cleaning up a couple of striders that had come in to look for an easy scavenge, perhaps. James dropped his head back down; he was too tired to move, his arms felt like noodles. He'd help later, when they needed him to do something fun, like use whatever skill orb this thing dropped.
He rolled his head over to see it; shining emerald green, and a size two at that. A small smile danced on his lips. That had been worth it, he thought, as he closed his eyes.
They hadn't let him rest for very long. They were getting short enough on time that it was time to head back, and Alanna complained that this place needed bathrooms. So, he'd grudgingly gotten up, and followed along with them.
"How'd you like the coffee?" He asked Alanna as they set a brisk walking pace back through the office, tracing over their signposted route, following Ganesh as he buzzed ahead to scout. It was mostly clear, but no sense taking chances. They'd already almost run into a shellaxy, which had gotten angry about their intrusion into its patch of hallway and tried to eat Anesh's legs.
"It was good but now I'm having trouble using pauses in my sentences and does this wear off quickly it's starting to give me a headache." Alanna answered rapidly.
Anesh laughed from ahead of them. "It's not just you! I assumed that was just what caffeine did to you, but it looks like this coffee has that effect on some people."
"Yeah, it wears off." James smiled. "So, what did you guys find before I interrupted you?"
"Oh, that!" Anesh started. "Well, we..."
"We found a briefcase and it was locked and it wouldn't break and there was a work order on it and we were trying to figure out where to deliver it and if it was something worth looking into and then I found a laser pointer and we found a bunch of iphones eating an android and then..." Alanna breathlessly and excitedly explained with a fiery gleam in her eyes.
"Okay, calm down there, sparky." Anesh made a lowering motion with his hand, quieting her down, while James broke down silently laughing at Alanna's sudden and enthusiastic energy. "But yeah, we ran across a couple things. None of them basilisks. What the hell was that, anyway?"
"A basilisk." James said coyly as they moved up to check a corner before moving on with their journey back.
Anesh lightly slapped James in the back of the head once they were clear. "I mean, what purpose does it serve? Alanna has me thinking about that now, and I hate it."
"Oh." James thought. "Security camera, so, sentry? Actually, I'm more concerned with why it dropped a green orb. I thought those were for the really huge monsters that actively try to kill us."
"It did..." Anesh started before being cut off.
James shook his head. "No, I mean, really try to kill us. This thing was just hunting, it felt like. It was going for Rufus, not 'patrolling the area' or anything like that."
"So, you think the greens are for hostiles?" Anesh asked.
"Have been so far." James replied grimly.
Alanna poked her head between the two of them. "Hey Anesh what are you calling the basilisk?"
"What?" They both asked in unison, cut out of their train of thought on dungeon ecology.
"The basilisk." Alanna asked, coming down from her caffeine high. "You've got a name for it, I know you do. What are you calling it? I won't pretend I'm mad about the pun, either." She said as they passed by the cubes that held the Decision Tree and headed back into the relatively safe part of the office, carefully stepping over the carpet break line that triggered the pencil dart trap.
"There's a weird EM hum here." Anesh muttered to the other two. "I thought it was just another monitor or something, but I think it's actually the trap trigger." He leaned down to press his ear near the ground. "Yup. Okay, that's something to look out for." He stood back up and started moving on. "As for the snake, no, I don't have a name for it. Not everything here actually has a good pun for a name."
"What?" Alanna asked, confused. "That can't be right. You guys have had weird names for all this stuff so far, I thought it was endemic to the dungeon."
"No, no," James explained, "this place just happens to have opportunities for names like that because it's all normal stuff. If these were actual monsters and not repurposed office supplies, it wouldn't be an issue. It just feels weird, because all the names 'fit', but they only fit because we make them fit, because it's real world stuff." He stumbled over his point at the end there. "Did that make sense?"
"James, we're in another dimension that's shaped like an office and has cable snakes in it, none of this makes sense. Oh! Cable snake!" She snapped her fingers. "That's the name!"
"Sure, works well enough, though it's a little on the nose." James told her as they hustled their way through now-familiar territory.
Alanna just scowled and shook her fist. "Don't ruin this for me. You both got one, it's my turn. It doesn't have to be good, I just want to name something. Maybe I'll go research puns when I get home, don't think I won't."
"I know you will, that's what worries me." Was all James had to say as they walked. They walked on, laughter and the humming of a drone's rotors the only noise until they got back to the door.
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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!