James looked down at the desk, the sting of excitement running through his blood. It felt like Christmas morning as a kid all over again, before age and increasingly harsh depression had dulled Christmas from something magical to something dreaded. But this wasn’t socially significant gifts or a stressful dinner with family he'd grown apart from; this was magic that he'd fought for, and earned.
Next to him, Alanna let out a low whistle as Anesh added the contents of the drawer to the pile of loot on the table. First, there was a pile of assorted cash, food, *miscellaneous things*, eighteen small yellow and a single medium orbs, and one small green sphere next to them. All of this, they had amassed on their way out and back. The spoils of their trials. Added to it, Anesh put in three more yellows, six small reds, and his own pile of money and candy bars.
"Did you intentionally go for every Baby Things you could find?" James asked with a smirk.
Alanna unwrapped one and shoved half of it into her mouth. "Is it Baby Thing, or Baby Things-s?" She asked around the mouthful of chocolate.
"Baby Things, singular and plural. And yes, I did. I like them, stop eating my candy." Anesh remarked dryly as he finished by laying out a pair of sunglasses on the desk.
"This has come full circle." James said with a small huff of air.
Anesh sat the shades down separated from the more random loot, and there were a few specific things that were set by themselves with it. The sunglasses, of course. But with them, a pencil, a laser pointer, a deliberately tangled Newton's cradle, and a pad of sticky notes. All of these were handled with tender care, to which James mostly rolled his eyes; they weren't ancient artifacts, no one was worried Anesh was going to drop the holy grail, they were just mildly magical stuff.
Well, he assumed. He hadn't actually seen what most of them did.
"Okay, first thing's first." Anesh said. "How are we dividing this up?"
"We pay Rufus and Ganesh first, I think." James replied, and Alanna nodded along. James had known for a while, and now Alanna too was well aware of the massive value those two had in both exploration and battle. "We also need to keep one for Lily, so she has something to eat that isn't the giant one."
Alanna pointed a finger at James across her chest. "Yeah, hey, what about that one? Can I have it?"
"No." "No." The replies were swift and simultaneous.
"I get it." "James gets it." Came the equally layered follow up comments.
James started a bit. "Wait, what? Why do I get it? I was kidding."
"You did something bloody stupid and heroic." Anesh said. "Now shut up and enjoy the reward for your sodding altruism."
James just nodded, trying not to let any emotion onto his face. He didn't really know how to respond to that, what to think or feel here. So, he tried for outward neutrality. What he got was probably closer to outward confusion, but hey, he wasn't an actor. It was probably a better image than weeping with joy or kissing Anesh a thank-you.
"Soooo..." Alanna said, cutting into his thoughts. "Two each for Rufus and Ganesh, right? And one for Lily. That leaves us seventeen of the skill balls, one of them large. So, five for each of us, and rock-paper-scissors for who gets the large one and the leftover?"
"Actually, there's something I've been thinking about." James spoke. "We've mostly been holding off on experimenting with these things because we've never really had enough, and it's always more fun to use them than test stuff. But, as long as we have an extra anyway, I kind of want to see what happens if we use it on an inanimate thing."
"How so?" Anesh asked slowly and suspiciously.
James shrugged. "I don't really know. But we know there's a way to reform the orbs once we've used them, we just haven't figured it out. We talked about use cases, remember Anesh? And we know that, somehow, blue and red orbs get used for magic items and traps."
"Xenotech." Came the correction from Anesh.
"*Magic. Items.*" James continued. "And traps. So, why not try to put a yellow into something, and see if we can make our own magic?"
"Because yellow orbs make living creatures?" Alanna said in a way that made it clear it wasn't so much a question, as it was just a statement. The unspoken question was "James, stop being an idiot." Which also wasn't a question, but was what she was going with anyway.
"Hm. We could make another ally, maybe." James started musing. "Maybe something that would be an effective sentry for the fort. If we built our own computer, do you think that would get us a friendly shellaxy?"
Anesh split the orbs into four piles, and held up a hand. "I'm going with Alanna's idea. Paper-scissors-stone, winner gets the big one, runner up gets the extra. I have no desire to test this theory today."
"Bah! Fine, I'll do it later, with my own reserves." James said, throwing up his arms. "You lack vision!" James put his own fist out for the game, and Alanna quickly mimicked the motion.
"I lack the desire to start a petting zoo of office supplies." Anesh responded, starting the arm movements and counting off. "One, two, *throw*."
Anesh was glad that he got James off that track for the moment, but was a bit less smug when he promptly lost, and got to watch Alanna and James face off over the course of fifteen ties for the actual prize.
"I feel like they're not taking this seriously." He muttered to Ganesh. The drone made a motion like a shrug, something he'd learned from Rufus, and hovered down to grab his own payment, helping Rufus carry off the orbs that they'd earned themselves over the day. "Hmph." Anesh let out an indignant noise. "Okay, well, when you guys have finished that up, let me know." He said to the still competing pair on the other side of the desk as he started sorting and tallying the cash.
They finished, Alanna won, but both of them were happy enough, and Anesh couldn't help but smile as James dramatically played up his loss.
"Alright, before we crack these." James said, as they all collected their individual treasures. "I have one thing I want to try. No, *not* making more friends, calm down Anesh, I see you getting ready to complain." He quickly cut off his friend. "Okay, so, we know the big orb has a few different shades of color in it, and these little ones have slight variations too. We should actually be making a log of the color as well as the skills when we crack them, just so we can try to find a pattern. Maybe some basic identification before using."
"That... Alright, that's smart." Alanna conceded. "Why weren't you doing that before?"
"We're easily distracted. Also usually injured by the time we get to this point." Anesh said without humor.
James nodded enthusiastically. "Not much of an excuse though!" He said with a smile. "I'm injured now, and I thought of it! I think this place is making me wise beyond my years."
It took a little while for them to wait for Anesh to get some paper and record all the different shades of yellow. They quickly realized that, even if James was right, they didn't actually have something that could accurately give them perfect color information. So, they were left with a sliding scale of dark to bright, and a hope that it might be enough to at least get started.
While Anesh was going through that process, James broke the Newton's cradle. The little office toy, which he hadn't asked about before fiddling with it, he'd untangled and started swinging. It had almost immediately started making a screeching noise in his head, like rough metal grinding on glass. Neither Alanna nor Anesh seemed to notice, but they'd both looked up when he'd chopped down with a flat hand hard enough to snap the desk toy in half, and calmly add a blue orb to their pile. As dignified as he could, he dusted himself off and cleared his throat, turning to look away as if nothing had happened.
"Fine. Didn't want that thing anyway." Anesh muttered. "All it did was mild telepathy, nothing there that we could probably exploit somehow for the betterment of the world and our own wallets." He finished writing out the list, and numbering the orbs with a sharpie they'd found. "Okay, done. Now, one at a time!"
"Wait, first, what about the... xenotech...?" James asked, concedeing to Anesh for time purposes. "What are we keeping, what are we cracking?"
"The pencil abuses physics, I think we should save it for now. The sticky notes don't seem to do anything except show emotions of people they're stuck on, so we can probably lose those. A fun novelty, but I'd rather have a potential life saver." Anesh said.
"Agreed." Alanna chimed in.
"You also already broke the cradle, which... fine. And the shades, I think we should all get used to so we can use them going forward. They would seriously improve our ability to spot stuff." Anesh held up the sunglasses.
James reached out, questioningly. "Can I try?"
"Sure, just be..." He put them on, and almost instantly ripped them off, screaming. "...careful. Bloody hell." Anesh watched as James dropped to his knees, holding his hands tightly over his eyes. "That was not how bad my reaction was. Alanna, do you want to..."
"Nooooooope. Sure don't."
"Right... well, I'll hold onto these then." Anesh said quietly. "Um... sorry. Again." James just held out a thumbs up. He wasn't seriously hurt, his brain just couldn't process it, and turned it into a sensation that he could only assume was pain. The fact that Anesh just got a mild headache from those, apparently, both shocked and impressed him.
Alanna reached over and picked up the last object. "So, the laser pointer, can I claim this one? It makes maps."
"Can I see?" James asked from the floor.
She nodded, pointing it at the front of Fort Door. The pointer started out as a dot, then quickly expanded to a series of lines and shapes as Alanna held it still.
"What's that?" James asked, pointing at a big rectangular blob of red light. "I get that the empty area here before the next lines is the no man's land, and this is the fort, but what's this in the fort?"
Alanna raised her arm up, and it vanished, she brought it back down, and it showed up again. "Desk, I think. As far as we could tell, it takes a horizontal slice of the world and projects that. I'm not sure if it's useful, because it's very short range, but it's still cool."
"I bet you everything from next week that it's useful." James didn't hesitate to make another wager.
Alanna was equally unhesitant in her reply. "No."
"Well then. Two more blue orbs, we'll keep those here with Rufus for safekeeping. No one wants the reds right now, they're weird. So, if that's all cleared up, skill orbs, one by one?" Anesh asked hopefully.
The three friends were battered, tired, wounded, some of them still with their own dried blood making their skin itch, hungry for an actual meal, and in one case, really wanting to hurry this along and get to a bathroom. But still, they smiled as they gathered around, and one by one, popped their prizes.
Naturally, the first one James burst in his fingers made him grimace.
[+1 Skill Rank : Sex - Fellatio]
"Well that sucks." He said, the joke coming out before he could stop it, unappreciated by his companions.
"What?" Anesh asked, pen at the ready. "That was number four, right? What did you get so I can write it down?"
James just gave Anesh a pained look. "Can I tell you later when Alanna isn't here to say... anything, really?" Anesh shrugged, Alanna punched him in the shoulder, and James sighed internally in relief. He then moved on to the rest of his orbs.
[+1 Skill Rank : Riding - Horse]
[+1 Skill Rank : Marketing]
[+1 Skill Rank : Firearms - Sidearms]
"And that's it for me." He finished explaining his upgrades. “Maybe this is what finally pushes me into bringing my gun in. I mean, we make a ton of noise sometimes, and we haven't hit another horde. We should probably try to figure out the conditions those occur under, but I don’t...really… want to *test* that…” He trailed off. "Anyway. I'm going to save the last two for experiments, or maybe just Lily, since she's almost done with the big one."
Alanna went next, gleefully finding new ways to crack the orbs. First smushing them against the desk, then learning that if she hit them hard enough that it still worked, and tennis serving the rest of them with her palm.
[+1 Skill Rank : Cooking - Recipe - Pan Seared Salmon]
[+1 Skill Rank : Anthropology - South American]
[+1 Skill Rank : Anxiety Management]
[+1 Skill Rank : Etiquette - Military - US]
[+1 Skill Rank : History - French - Political]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Negotiation - Contract]
“Hey, I actually have one of those already!” James said, surprised. “Anesh! Add that to the list of suspicious things to look into that we really have no way to accurately test!”
“No.” They did not have that list, and Anesh wasn’t going to humor James’ thought that they were ever fully blocked from researching further into the nature of the dungeon. They had a proper list, with questions that simply didn’t have answers yet.
“Great!” James exclaimed, before pulling out his own phone and making the note anyway. “But really. You’re not going to save any of these?” He asked Alanna.
"I'm saving nothing!" She proudly declared. "I shall take them all! Self-actualization for the win!" James and Anesh gave her small claps for her impromptu call to personal betterment, and she half bowed. "Great. Now Anesh, do yours, and let's go. Self-actualization doesn't mean I don't have to piss like a racehorse."
"Classy." James quipped.
Alanna punched him again. "I'm charismatic, I don't have to be classy."
While James desperately tried to find the words to reply to that, or even process it, Anesh ignored them both. Finishing up his notes on Alanna's skills, he turned to his own, and, taking inspiration from James for once, decided to hold back one of his. He did it kinda quietly, mostly just thinking that, now that he could freely talk about this place, it would be useful to introduce someone else to the dungeon's allure.
[+1 Skill Rank : Inventory Management - Arrangement]
[+1 Skill Rank : Makeup Application]
[+1 Skill Rank : Craft - Paper Mâche]
[+1 Skill Rank : Meteorology]
"Alright, that's me done." He said, sharing with the others so it wouldn't feel unfair. "Now. Let's get out of here. I need to get some sleep, now that we've ruined our internal clocks."
"Oh man, this place does that, doesn't it!" Alanna slapped her own forehead. "Why didn't you warn me?!" She demanded of James.
James blocked her playful punch this time, casually swatting her slow moving fist aside as he responded. "I literally *could not* have told you about it. And I bet it was one of the first things Anesh let you know when he listed off the dangers."
"You can't prove that."
"Anesh is *right there*. I can just ask him." James waved over at Anesh, who had their take out bag set up, everything else already packed. "Also, come on. You can complain later, let's get out of here. You remember reality? It's terrible, but it has useable toilets and they're right outside that door."
Alanna considered it briefly. "I accept your terms." She said solemnly.
"Great. Let's go, because Anesh already left. Good night, Rufus, Ganesh! We'll see you guys next week! Stay safe, kids!"
"They're basically just especially useful kids."
For James and Anesh, this was a bit that was getting pretty familiar, and though it had lost that electric charge of something totally new, it was still fantastic. But for Alanna, standing there on the threshold of the door, she couldn’t help but look back. Rufus waved a single pen leg at her, and Ganesh tried to mimic the gesture with one of his rotor-legs. Beyond them, the office beckoned her back, thousands and thousands of chances to be something *more*.
It was probably a good thing that she now desperately needed to use the bathroom in James’ actual office building, or she might have turned around right there.
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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!