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A note from argusthecat

 On time and under budget!

Hey, I know I say this a lot, but super extra thanks to everyone who threw a buck or two at the Patreon.  I know money doesn't grow on trees in this world, so I appreciate it.  There will be more audiobook chapters for patrons this week, as well as the first couple posted on Youtube for everyone to listen to.  Also, it's been suggested that I do a Q&A from the perspective of the characters, open to patrons who want to ask James or Anesh or Alanna what they think about stuff.  I dig the idea, and I'll be setting that up later this week as well.  The questions will be sourced from patrons, but the answers will be posted... probably here, honestly.

Anyway, here's the chapter!  

"I want a shield." Alanna said as they ducked under a rope of braided paper hanging at about head level.

 

James was swinging his pack around to pull the bolt cutters out, having spotted a series of clip-webs up ahead, blocking the way forward. "Why? You have a two handed weapon."

 

She shrugged, setting the hammer down and taking off the thick gloves to wipe her hands while James went to work on the webs. "I could get a smaller hammer. Anesh keeps sending me links to mauls."

 

"Ah. Shopping mauls." James said, almost reflexively, and Alanna whapped him lightly on the back of the head.

 

She snorted. "Honestly, this week kind of flew by. I thought you guys would have put more work into the equipment." Alanna said

 

"Normally we do." James responded, wincing. "We've been trying to reinvest our funds into better stuff, find new ways to fight things in here, you know. But this week, Anesh had a bunch of tests, and I just felt more like crawling in a hole than doing work." He grunted as he snapped a chain of strangely durable paperclips in half. "We do have a list of stuff we want, though. Or at least, I have a list."

 

"Yeah? What's on it? Aside from now also my shield now."

 

"Lots of stuff, really. We need to get actual workshop equipment, and a work space somewhere, so that Anesh doesn't have to rely on a strangely oblivious chemistry department to make us thermite..."

 

"What."

 

"We need to rebuild the potato gun, or maybe just buy a black market grenade launcher. I want to buy some bikes or, as I was just reminded of, skateboards, and then clear some easy paths through the cubes to points of interest. A fast travel system, basically." James ignored her interruption.

 

"No, go back to the thermite." Alanna had an alarmed look on her face.

 

"I also want to get us some flare guns, so we can signal each other at range. Might be a little awkward, but I think it's important. More wireless cameras, though that'd be kinda awkward to actually cover enough ground. But we could use them to form small hunting grounds; those things are really expensive."

 

"James. Thermite." Alanna demanded.

 

James had set the clippers aside and was now just counting off on his gloved fingers. "A bunch of USB drives, extra backpacks to replace the ones that keep getting fucked up or turned into critter nests, backup sets of armor. Oh man, the armor is going to be so expensive, this stuff is not cheap."

 

"James!" She couldn't tell whether it would be better to just laugh and let him have his fun, or punch the answer out of him.

 

Seeing the violent glint in his teammate's eye, James capitulated. "Alright, alright!" He laughed, trying to smother it so he didn't make too much noise, but unable to keep himself from letting out a sharp snort of laughter. He took a second to calm down, red faced from embarrassment at the weird noise he'd made, and then answered her. "I could have sworn we told you about this. Anesh was making thermite grenades so we could kill the first tumblefeed, and then we adapted them to a big old potato gun, which... um... exploded."

 

She gave him a dry glare. "From the thermite?" Alanna half-asked, half-stated.

 

"No, from the lasers." James answered. "I am positive we told you about the 2.0s, yes?" He asked tentatively.

 

"Oh, yeah, those things. Okay." Alanna grudgingly nodded. "So, what else did you want to buy? I mean, we can take some time on the way there to loot, if you think that's a good idea?"

 

James' eyes lit up. "Yes! I've actually been annoyed that we didn't get much chance for that last week, what with the stabbings and the time limit. Like, don't get me wrong, I love exploring, but I also want to make rent and eat Thai food every day."

 

"I hear ya. Fucking retail does not pay enough to support my ambitions." Alanna said.

 

James scoffed a bit as he pushed the bolt cutters back into the backpack loop. "Your ambitions are, if I recall correctly, 'ruling the world with an iron fist'?"

 

"You can be my henchman." Alanna said with a straight face.

 

"Deal." James said with a weak smile. He was having ups and downs of energy, and while Alanna was doing a good job keeping him engaged, it still didn't make it easy when it felt like he didn't have the willpower to lift his own arms.

 

She nodded, rapping her knuckles on James' helmet. "Excellent. Now, I'm not gonna tell you to cheer up, because that's fucking stupid, but let's go see if we can find one of those briefcases and smash it open."

 

"Also deal." James said, his smile strengthening into a grin. The two of them swept aside the remains of the paperclip netting that was strung across the hallway, and moved on, deeper into to dungeon. He kept talking as they moved on, but in a softer voice so as not to alert anything sleeping nearby. "Oh, I also wanted to buy guns for everyone."

 

"Guns?"

 

"Yeah, I think at this point, with five or more of us, that the amount of firepower we could deploy probably offsets the danger of the noise." James rationalized, as Alanna went cube to cube, just quickly grabbing wallets. "I mean, I haven't brought my gun because Anesh and I have had to run from swarms before when we were too loud, and I thought that..."

 

Alanna cut him off. "You own a gun!?" She demanded. "Fucking you? You hate guns!"

 

"I have viewpoints on guns as an element of society. That's different than hating guns." James retorted. He checked the cubicle door on the opposite side of the aisle from Alanna's looting spree. The first one had a stapler on the desk, and another lurking on top of a set of drawers. Maybe the dungeon had spawned the cube of - he checked the nameplate... Martha Willard - to belong to someone who just really loved staplers. Maybe she frequently lost them and kept a spare. Maybe she had to staple so much during the day, at such a fast pace, that she needed a second stapler to keep up the flow while the first one was reloaded.

 

Or, maybe, James was going to save his energy and skip this one.

 

While he dug through the dry cleaning hanging in the stapler-free zone, Alanna hollered over at him. "You are on record as saying, and I am quoting you here, 'no one should be allowed to own a gun, ever, you can quote me on this.' Is that, or is that not, true?"

 

James stepped out into the hallway, sixty three dollars richer. Sixty nine if you counted six dollar bills, which he did not. "I said that, sure. I don't think I should be exempt, either. I'm just hypocritical. Or maybe I'm outside society, since I'm spending a good five percent of my life in another dimension? Either way, the gun is for here, not out there. Which, yes, shut up, is not a good excuse." He rolled over Alanna's protest as she came out of the last cube on her side, tossing a wallet back into it while pulling out folded bills.

 

"Your political views need some touch ups. Also, hey, I keep finding loyalty cards for coffee shops that don't exist. What's up with that? Like, the money is for a country that's real, presumably. Why not the gift cards and stuff?" She asked him.

 

James thought for a minute. "Maybe it's... no, that's stupid." He started counting off on his fingers. "If it's random what it duplicates, then the money doesn't make sense. If it's not random, then the cards don't make sense. If they're both random, then we've just gotten lucky?"

 

"Wait," Alanna held up a hand, "how does the non-real money factor in? Like, the three dollar bills?"

 

"Fuck, this place confuses me so much." James grumbled. "Everything here comes across like the GM is just leaning on a bunch of d100 tables, except..."

 

"Except there's holes in that." Alanna muttered, sharing a look with James, as if prompting him to provide an answer.

 

James idly punched the wall next to him a couple of times as he considered it. Alanna looked at him expectantly, waiting to see if he had any better ideas than she did. Alanna was the sort of person who knew her capabilities pretty well, and also knew about the point where she lost any ability to contribute. James and Anesh were sci-fi and fantasy people; Alanna just wasn't, not to the same degree. She played D&D with them for the roleplaying, much like how JP played for the characterization and social element. She just wasn't there to be part of a high fantasy experience.

 

But James? James was. Anesh certainly was. They built worlds, they had brains full of tropes and magic systems. They made narrative connections. If Alanna was going to trust anyone to figure this place out, it was them. She was here as muscle, and for the free education; James could be the one to unravel the mysteries.

 

"I got nothing." He said, looking up from his examination of the carpet.

 

Alanna snapped out of her revere, and almost choked on her own laughter. Covering her mouth and turning it into a cough so as not to make James think she was mocking him.

 

And it was like that, with Alanna half-laughing and half-hacking up a lung, that the first stapler threw itself off the top of the cubicle behind James and slammed pointy bit first into Alanna's back.

 

The armor, thick padding and hard plastic that made the two of them look like extras from a bad dystopia movie, stopped the staple from going into the flesh of her back. Hell, the armor was probably thicker than a staple was anyway, regardless of the fact that it was pretty hard to puncture. But it was still one of those bulky staplers, the kind that looked like a brick and weighed roughly as much.

 

Alanna stumbled forward, not staggered or winded, but caught off guard and shocked. She flailed her arms, and caught her balance on the nearest felt wall. James snapped out a warning, but she wasn't listening, instead trying to grab the stapler still dangling from her armor off of her. The staple holding it in place like a cat's claws caught in drapes, and right in that spot where human arms can't reach. She was just righting herself and stretching her arms around to grab it when the second one hit her in the face.

 

This one didn't bite, instead the strider itself was caught off guard by her sudden change in position, and just slammed into her cheek. Alanna jerked backward, a few drops of blood splattering the floor as her face was gashed open. But the cut was small; the real damage was the spike of pain through her jaw, and the feeling like one of her teeth was loose.

 

There was a crack from nearby. James had snagged a third strider, threw it to the ground in its open state, and just stomped on it until whatever it had that passed for a spine cracked in half. Alanna did the same thing, sort of; bringing a heel down to pin the one that had hit her on the floor, bending a few of its pen legs and keeping it in place while she got the other one off her back.

 

"These fucking things..." She started to say, and then was interrupted by a crash as, from the door of the cube behind James, a shellaxy bulldozed its way through. It hit the wall a bit on the way out, knocking it out of alignment with the rest of the hall slightly. Perched on its back, just above the flaring blue LED eye of the computer below it, was a single strider. It looked noble, almost, atop its mount; fancier pens with gold clips and cursive script making up its legs, and giving it a regal appearance. Below it, the shellaxy was a mess of power cables, spreading out like a mobile thornbush to haul its body forward. The two CD drives on its front open, showing off multiple rows of circuit board teeth.

 

James effortlessly slid into a fighting stance, toes pointed in the same direction, feet spaced apart with one forward and one back, keeping his center of balance perfect.

 

Then he hit that strider with a snap kick that sent it soaring down the hallway, tumbling end over end in a dazed pile of executive pens and dripping a few spots of ichor. Bringing the kick around, he planted his foot on the other side of the shellaxy, and shuffled his other leg around to place himself behind they angry, but unwieldy, beast.

 

Alanna took the strider she'd managed to grab off her back, and hucked it at the face of the beast. It made a satisfying metal crunch as it hit, which made her grin, even as James winced at the assault on his ears. The strider righted itself quickly, and equally quickly got trampled by the shellaxy as it charged Alanna. Those teeth were inset, and hard to actually clamp down on a person, but James had let her know that the shellaxies could pop open unseen hinges to really get into someone's arm or leg, and Alanna was less than 100% confident in the armor's ability to stop a rampaging PC.

 

She backpedaled, keeping an eye on it, but also looking at James, as he rushed down the hallway, building up speed in the short space he had. As she stepped backward, Alanna snagged up the sledgehammer from where she'd left it leaning against one of the cube doors during their little looting stop, pulling it into a batting stance as the shellaxy closed the gap between them.

 

Then James caught up to it, got slightly to its side, and lunged forward, slamming both knees into its side. The creature tried to keep itself upright, and its thick tangle base of cables did a good job of doing that, but as James let himself fall forward, putting more and more weight down, it inevitably toppled.

 

It also tried to bite his arm as he caught himself on the ground. Those hidden hinges popping part of its mouth open and it struggled forward to sink teeth into his wrist and forearm. But he jerked his arm upward before it could shred the armor, using the momentum to roll himself sideways off the shellaxy. He left behind a few scraps of cloth on its teeth, but he got away mostly clean.

 

And then there was a heavy crunching thud, as Alanna slammed the hammer down onto its side. The metal case dented inward, and the shellaxy started flailing even harder to drag itself back upright. But before it could make too much progress, she brought the sledgehammer around in another arc, and hit it again, pushing it back down. And again, and again. Metal warping under repeated strikes, until screws were popping out and innards were exposed. And then there was enough room to swing the hammer through the gap, and into its insides, and there was a pop and a spray of bluish-grey liquid that smelled strangely like coolant to James, and it went still.

 

James nodded up at her from his spot on the floor, as Alanna swung her weapon back over a shoulder and stood there, framed against the fluorescent lights of the ceiling, grinning down at him. "Okay, I'm gonna take a nap down here." James said. "Good job. You go on withouuuwwww!" He screamed as the forgotten stapler sunk metal into the thinner part of one of his gloves, the feeling of a needle going into the webbing between two of his finger joints both painful and nauseating.

 

He grabbed it, feeling the staple pop out and a rush of warm fluid start drenching his glove. It wasn't hard for him, at this point, to just snap these things open. But there was always the risk of dropping them when he did, as they struggled constantly. This time, though, it wasn't getting away. A short rush of pained enthusiasm filled James as he tore the protective cover back, and smashed the stapler down on the floor, sending staples and ichor in equal parts flying.

 

"Okay!" He said with a snarl. "I'm super angry these things are mostly metal, because I would *eat* that fucker if I could!"

 

Alanna was half frozen between bringing the hammer around, and not wanting to hit James. After he disposed of the enemy, though, she dropped it and quickly started sorting for her first aid kit. "Yeah, well, maybe we'll find something farther in you can snack on. Oh! Coffee elemental?"

 

"Don't jinx us. We don't talk about possible monsters. It's bad form." He responded as she rubbed blood off his hand.

 

She just whapped him on the helmet. "You two have been here maybe four times more than I have. You cannot possibly have superstitions yet."

 

James tapped his temple as he stood up and pulled his glove back on. "Oh, you'll see." He said. "I know how this works. You'll believe me soon enough.

 

"Stop it! I don't want to believe your weird non-traditions!" Alanna laughed as she collected the yellow orbs. "So, want to crack these now?"

 

"Sure. I'll take two of the smalls, you take the big one and the other small. Seems fair, since you did most of the work." James offered.

 

"I'd argue with you, but whatever, I ain't gonna turn down free... free what? EXP?" Alanna trailed off. "What do we call the output of the orbs?"

 

James stared at her for a couple seconds. "Skills. Cause it says skills." He said flatly, maintaining direct eye contact and an intentionally comedic incredulous look while he raised his hand and cracked the two orbs in his fist.

 

[+1 Skill Rank : Cooking - Baking]
[+1 Skill Rank : Judo]

 

"I'm getting really lucky lately with these martial arts ones." He said.

 

Alanna threw a mock punch at him, and he ducked it and started strolling off. "Heh. Yeah, I can see how that's helping you." She muttered as she cracked her own orbs. "I'm gonna need a new hobby if you get good enough at dodging."

 

[+1 Skill Rank : Geology - Rock Identification - Igneous]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Repair - Smoke Alarm]

 

"Jaaaaaames!" She called after him as he stepped out of the next cube down that he'd been looting. "I hate these things now!"

 

"I hear that a lot." James nodded sagely. "Hey, so, I think we should probably be keeping a bit quieter. And moving away from here. We made a ton of noise on that guy, and... I dunno, but did it feel like we disturbed a nest or something to you?"

 

Alanna cut the joking tone. "Yeah, I got that feeling." She said. "Like, they were a unit, not random monsters."

 

James agreed with her. "Maybe it's cause we're deeper in. Well, regardless. Update the map, I'm going to go check that corner. We'll just have to be more careful. Oh, and... I totally forgot, we were supposed to be checking the colors on these things.." Alanna slapped her forehead as he reminded her. "Yeah, so, maybe we don't tell Anesh about this part? He's... really into the record keeping."

 

"Alright. I'm with you there. He's scary sometimes when he's disappointed." Alanna replied.

 

The two of them moved on, deeper into the dungeon. They were a bit richer, a bit more tired, and now with a tiny bit more of an edge against the world. It felt good, and for James, it was even enough to make him raise his chin up, stand a little straighter, and put some vigor into his movement. For a while, at least.

 

_____

 

"What the fuck is that..." Alanna whispered.

 

She and James were crouched at a T-intersection, peeking around the corner. At the far end, the cubicles opened up a bit, spreading out on either side, and having lower walls. Not waist high, like the clusters of desks where the Decision Tree grew, but still low enough that Alanna could see over it on her toes. James could too, if he got Alanna to give him a lift up, which he was not prepared to sacrifice his dignity doing.

 

At the end of the intersection, there was a window. Natural light poured in, mixing with the sharp white of the fluorescents, creating a kind of sickly feeling atmosphere. James stared at it, trying to make out what was on the other side, but seeing nothing but a pale white blob beyond the pane of glass set into the wall.

 

"It's a window." He said. And promptly got smacked on the back of his helmet by Alanna, who was perched over him. One of the downsides to peeking around corners Scooby-Doo style was that he didn't have much of a chance to dodge the fallout of his snide comments.

 

"It can't be a window, you chungus." Alanna told him. "We're not in... a... building?" She trailed off again. "Are we in a building?" She asked. "Did you guys ever establish where the hell we are? Like, is this actually just a dimension that ends at the walls, or is this... in... a... place?"

 

James rolled his head up to look at his teammate. "You forgot how English worked, huh? But really, we don't know. We never knocked out the walls to check if there's an endless Minecraft void out there. You're the one with the hammer, want to try later?"

 

"No."

 

"Your loss, I guess?" James snarked. "But hey, if you want, we can go check the window out, we can see if there's an outside. That might have some, let's say, consequences." That was putting it lightly. As far as James was concerned, a single office as a sub dimension? That was okay. But a whole world?

 

A world couldn't be contained as easily as keeping an eye on one door for three minutes a week. A world implied a lot of horrible shit, especially since things got objectively worse and worse the farther from the door they got. There were a lot of things that a world could contain that went far and away beyond the scope of an office. Things that James knew, beyond any doubt, that he and Anesh couldn't handle. No matter how many friends they brought in.

 

Alanna agreed, and the two of them crept forward, keeping quiet and checking the cubes around them. They actually did have to crouch walk; the ceilings in the corridor they'd come down weren't that low, but there were a lot of jutting features that stuck down from them, beige spikes of wall material that made maneuvering awkward. They'd kept low after a sudden iLipede had leapt onto James' head from one of the stalactites, freaking him out and trying to claw through his helmet.

 

So they waddled along, low to the ground and down far enough that they had a range of vision in the dark tunnels, using the flashlights that James had kept since the start to spot any potential ambushers. The whole thing had netted them four more small yellow orbs, and a healthy hatred for low ceilings. It opened up ahead, and they were both looking forward to standing up again.

 

Of course, the walls couldn't just go back to normal. And the area around the window actually ended in the wall that the window was set into. James could see it, but not how high it reached, since there was actual ceiling here. Foam tiles and all. There was an aisle along the wall, too, so James knew they could follow it down the rows, and maybe find a quicker shortcut through to the bathrooms. Scouting was the point of this trip, no matter what distractions he and Alanna got up to.

 

"Hold up." Alanna said. "You hear that?"

 

"No, what?" James asked, freezing. He strained his ears, but didn't hear anything except for the hum of monitors and lights around them. "I don't hear anything."

 

She held up a hand, and tilted her head. "It's the same as... there!" Alanna pointed at the floor, and it took James a second to realize that she was pointing at the carpet. Specifically, the split in the carpet.

 

"Fuck, pencil trap?" James asked, and Alanna shrugged, nodding. "Yeah, that's an issue. Hang on." He took the flashlight, clicked it off, and lobbed it forward. There was enough light here that he didn't need it in hand at the moment, and maglight were built like tanks, so he wasn't worried it was going to break.

 

It hit the tripline, and nothing happened.

 

"Huh." Alanna said. "Did you miss?" She rolled her own flashlight along the floor, a rattling metal tube meant to trip the trap and clear their way. And again, nothing happened.

 

James actually *growled* at the trap trigger. "Don't tell me this is one of those bullshit traps that only trigger with a live human?"

 

"Oh, an iPhone screen, but as a trap." Alanna suggested.

 

"I hate that I believe that." He replied, standing up. "Okay, I got this. Hang on." James shuffled forward, bit by bit, toward the line. "Get ready to run, I guess?" He said, and then pushed his toe the last inch and hit it.

 

There was an electric snap, static discharging, and then a soft felt grinding. James looked around, but didn't spot where the trap was. Then, the pencil darts started pouring past. On his right side, from *behind them*. From the back of the hall, at the corner they'd just turned. The first volley was on the far left of the path as he turned to see it. Then another line of shots a little closer, a bit farther to the right. But he could see those telltale holes opened up all across the wall.

 

The next line fired, and James jerked into action before it was too late. He stepped forward, and grabbed Alanna under the shoulder. The next line fired, and one of the pencils glanced off his elbow plate, leaving a scar in the plastic from the razor tip. He hauled, with all his might, and rolled his friend across the floor, from the right side where she was crouched, to the left, as another row fired.

 

James pivoted, trying to get himself clear of the next row as well. He'd crossed Alanna over the line of fire, and now needed to do the same himself. He almost made it before another line fired, and felt pressure on his chest. Then, he and Alanna were against the far wall, and the darts finished firing, hitting nothing but air and the wall around the window down range.

 

The whole thing took maybe six seconds.

 

"Whoof." James let out a gasp. "You've, uh, got a dart in your hair." He reached up and plucked the yellow number two writing tool out of Alanna's ponytail, a strangely intimate gesture, as the two of them sat there half leaning against each other, coming down from the adrenaline rush as they came to terms with how close death had been.

 

She shook herself a bit, swallowing heavily. "Thanks. You've, uh..." She reached down, and pulled, and James felt another bit of pressure. He looked down, and saw a pencil, buried in the front of his armor suit. If he'd been a half second slower, it wouldn't have cut into the side of his torso padding, it would have embedded itself in the side of his *torso*.

 

"Well. Well!" He said, with a shaky voice. "Let's get the fuck out of here before that sets back up again."

 

The two of them crossed the line, and took a couple of chairs into one of the cubes near the window. They sat for a bit, slightly more comfortable than being on the floor. James trying to stop shaking, as Alanna made a note on their map about the trap here.

 

"Hey," he said, "add a ten foot pole to that list of things we need to buy."

 

The D&D reference wasn't lost on her, but Alanna just responded with, "I didn't write that down! I'm keeping the map, you keep the shopping list."

 

James scowled as he went to pull out his phone, before realizing it was in pockets now covered by armor pads. "I'll do that before we leave, sure." He started poking around while Alanna made marks of lines and notes on their progress. Usually, he'd loot while she did this, and they'd both come out happy with their work.

 

This time, he fired up the laptop first. Password protected; score. James had come to two conclusions over their delves about the pattern of computers. First of all, if they had a password, then they had blue-orb-laced file on them. They were essentially digital treasure chests. He didn't know what to think of that, really. It implied that they were intentionally placed there to be opened, which was uncomfortable at best. Second, he'd realized that the dungeon had a strangely functional sense of social engineering as a method of breaking passwords.

 

People in reality often wrote passwords down. If not, then they used passwords that were birthdays or pet names or phrases they liked. In the real world, websites were getting wise to this, and requiring numbers or capital letters, and ruining the ability for sneaky bastards the world over to trick passwords out of people. But the dungeon hadn't caught up to modern security yet, it seemed.

 

It took James six tries to hit on the answer. It was the name of the dog in one of the photographs on the desk. The dog photos never actually stopped freaking him out; something about the eyes wasn't quite right. But the nametag on the dog, "Harvock", got him into the system.

 

He poked around for a bit, before stumbling onto an .mp3 file, just as Alanna was clicking her pen away and folding up the map back into the file folder in her backpack. "Alright, done." She said. "Ready to go?"

 

"Hang on, I want to see what this is." James turned in the chair and pointed. "I found an audio file. It's the only thing on here, and usually, these things are weird. Want to check it out?"

 

Alanna leaned over, and swiftly snatched the mouse from him and double clicked it. "Yes!" She said enthusiastically.

 

"I don't want you to go." Came a voice out of the computer. It was a young girl, maybe ten to twelve. "You need to quit!" The words had all the conviction of a child who knew they were correct, no questions asked.

 

The voice that responded was male. Older, maybe early forties. "Sorry, little shark. But it's important. People count on me. You wouldn't want me to let everyone down, would you?"

 

"But... but..." The child responded.

 

"Hey, you wouldn't like it if I let you down, right?" The adult, probably her father, said.

 

There was a sniffle, the kind you got from kids trying and failing to hold back tears. "You'll come back?" She asked in a tiny, quiet voice.

 

"I'll..."

 

The audio file ended. Its thirty second runtime had ended.

 

James sat back in the chair. "Huh. That's weird. Do you have any idea what..." He turned to Alanna, and saw her standing against the far wall, jaw clenched, one of her arms held over her eyes. "Hey, what's up? Are you okay?" James trailed off, knowing how useless that question sounded.

 

Alanna sniffed in a wet breath of air. It reminded James for all the world like that little girl from the recording. He stood up, and went over to check on her, and as he approached, Alanna dropped her arm to show a tear stained face. "That was... that was my dad." She gasped out. "I remember that night. That was my dad." She repeated.

 

"Hey, talk to me. What's going on?" James said, confused.

 

Alanna took a breath, and wiped away her eyes with gloved hands. "When I was eleven, my dad went out on an assignment. That was me, talking to him, the night he left." She waved a hand loosely at the laptop. "I don't know why, but that was it. Exactly what I remember him saying, exactly what I said. Like they recorded the whole thing, over a decade ago."

 

He nodded, listening, but then stopped, as a thought occurred. "Wait, why do you remember it?" James asked her.

 

"It was the last time I saw him." Alanna said. "He was..." her words caught in her throat. "He was a cop. He died. That's all. That was the last thing he said to me." She shook silently, trying and failing to hold back tears.

 

James stepped forward. Normally, he was awkward comforting people, but this time, something pushed him forward. He put his hands on Alanna's shoulders, holding her steady. "Hey." He said. "It's okay. It's not... okay. But I'm here for you, if you need anything." She fell forward into him, and he found himself trying to comfort and hug someone while both of them were wearing full body armor.

 

After a few minutes, she straightened up, wiping the fresh tears away and catching her breath. "Thanks." She said with a small smile. "For everything."

 

"Anytime." James smiled back. He didn't know what everything she was talking about, but he knew what it meant to be in grief, to fall apart like that. He also knew when it was important to change the mood. "Hey, want to delete that file? I can't promise it'll give a blue orb, but maybe it'll be satisfying for you?"

 

"No!" Alanna said quickly. "No, please. I'd like to... save it, if that's okay."

 

"Sure." James said, pulling a USB drive out of one of the armor pockets. "We can do that."

 

She looked at him weird, her tone turning from shaky to wry in a heartbeat. "You're just carrying that?"

 

"Yeah, duh." He said, sitting back at the laptop. "What if we find a file that we like?" Alanna stared at him, unbelieving. "Like, for example, this one!" He said, turning back to the computer.

 

As he reached for the mouse though, he accidentally clicked again, fumbling with his gloved hand. And in doing so, he hit the play button again, and the file started playing.

 

"I'm not gonna tell him." A male voice came through the speakers. Alanna and James both looked at each other, eyebrows raised. The voice sounded vaguely familiar to James, but he couldn't quite place it.

 

"Just do it!" A young woman's voice came back. It was cheerful and bright, and James could almost feel the room lighting up as she spoke. "What's the worst that could happen? It's a great idea, trust me, I know everything!"

 

"Eeehhhh. I dunno." There was a long pause. "What if it turns out he doesn't feel the same way? Can you imagine how awkward that would be? We'd have to deal with..."

 

The file ended again.

 

"James, what the shit was that?" Alanna asked him.

 

He looked up at her, panic in his eyes. "I don't know! I hit play again, and it was something else!"

 

"That was you, talking, wasn't it?" She said. "When was that?"

 

"That's what I sound like?" He asked, surprised. "Wait, no, that couldn't have been me. I don't remember that conversation."

 

Alanna bopped him on the helmet again. "You can forget conversations. Maybe it was one of the less important ones."

 

"No, I mean, I don't recognize who the other person speaking is." He said. "It doesn't sound like anyone I know. And the tone of the conversation seems pretty serious, not something I'd talk to a stranger about. So... if that's me, who am I talking to?"

 

"Fucking weird." Alanna said grimly. "Okay, save that file. Let's go check out the window, and then get a move on. We've got an hour and a half left to get there, and turn around."

 

James did so, careful not to play it again. "Are we going to worry about this at all?" He asked as he pocketed the USB drive. "It seems like another weird dungeon thing that I'm going to hate."

 

"Oh, absolutely." Alanna said. "But right now? Fuck it. I'm angry about things outside my control again, so let's go find something I can smash the fuck out of."

 

He patted her on the shoulder as they walked back to the hallway. "Your method of anger management needs work. But I'm here to help, so, hey. Want to break a window?"

 

"Absolutely." She replied, and the two of them shared a smile before turning to investigate the glowing square.

 

They moved forward, trying to push their moods away from the sudden burst of darkness that had been dredged up. James didn't really know exactly how Alanna was feeling, but 'recklessly violent' would be his first guess. So, he moved at double time checking the low walled cubicles for monster nests as they approached the window. They all seemed clear, but there were a couple coffee cups on desks that he let Alanna know about. James also had to push aside a lot of paper curtains to check everything.

 

And then they were at the window. Well, almost. They paused at the intersection with the asile along the wall, and waited for a flock of paper to fly by overhead. James kept an eye on the makeshift birds, wondering if another paper airplane would show up. But none did, and once the rustling noise passed, he and Alanna moved forward.

 

The window was semi-opaque. The kind of frosted glass that you saw in hospitals, usually. Alanna moved to press her face against it, but James had a weird feeling, and held her back. "Hang on, something isn't right." He said.

 

"Of course something isn't right. This isn't the exterior wall." Alanna told him. "I looked at the map. This wall cannot be the outside of the dungeon. So, do you want to just open with smashing?" She hoisted the hammer. James looked around, trying to figure out what it was that had set him on edge. While he did so, not responding, Alanna shrugged, and moved up. "I see a splash of green down there." She said, looking through the window. "A tree, maybe? Can't tell if there's cars." She looked up, trying to peer around the edges. "No sun or anything. Maybe cause it's 3 AM. But then why's it bright?"

 

"I think we should get out of here, actually." James said, with a little more urgency. He'd realized what it was that was bothering him.

 

Alanna glanced at him, turning away from the window. "Why?"

 

"Because." James said, pointing at the window with one hand while he unclipped his axe with the other. "There are shadows moving on the other side of that thing, and you just looked down. So that means that we're not at ground level, and those are..."

 

There was a hollow, echoing thunk from the window pane.

 

"Birds." James said.

 

Another thunk, louder this time. The sheet of glass, set into an otherwise featureless wall, cracked slightly down the middle.

 

There were more shadow shapes moving on the other side. A lot more. Alanna took a step backward as the ambient light from the window was blotted out by the moving fluttering shapes on its other side. There was another hit, and another. The glass held for a few more, but then the crack widened.

 

"Jaaaaames." She said, unsure what to do and looking for guidance.

 

James looked at the window, then looked around. He wanted to say 'run', and call it good, but it was too late for that. They were too deep in the dungeon. They could not, *absolutely could not* get lost now. They had to stay on the mapped path. He looked, and thought, and got an answer.

 

"Run!" He shouted. "This way!" And turned and ran back the way they came.

 

Alanna turned to follow, and the window shattered behind them.

 

The window itself didn't break. It... shifted. Something hit it, and it shattered outward, and the shards of glass, instead of spraying onto the floor, layered themselves onto the form that came through. It had no body, it wasn't a body at all. It was just the window itself, breaking inward, the vaguely bird-shaped thing that flew through looking half like it was built out of broken glass on the fly, and half like it was diving through a pool and leaving an afterimage. Instead of a dangerous patch of ground to walk on, there was only a single large long-necked bird, like a crane. Except for the additional set of wings offset ninety degrees from the more normal pair, and for the fact that its entire body was split open along the middle, a molten red core showing through. A crucible, fed by hundreds of grinding glass teeth.

 

Alanna barely glimpsed the thing before turning and sprinting with James. James himself saw none of this, and didn't want to. He had a plan, and if it worked, maybe they'd live.

 

He let go of Alanna's hand, the two of them running full tilt, her right on his heels. And then he hit the line in the carpet. He had to stagger a step to do it right, because he was aiming for it. He hugged the right side, and Alanna mimicked him.

 

There was the feeling of static discharging. And the darts started flying.

 

James wanted to roar a challenge to the trap, to dare it to hit him as he ran full bore down its sights. The holes at the end of the hallway already starting to fire on the left side, sweeping across the open space with row after row of needlepoint pencil darts. But he couldn't spare the breath. Behind him, Alanna did find the energy to let out a furious yell as the incoming fire got closer and closer to their left flank.

 

Just a few more steps, James thought. Another row of darts whipped past, these ones close enough to touch. One more step; another row, these ones right next to him.

 

He grabbed the corner of the cubicles, and swung himself around, converting momentum so fast he almost fell. But he couldn't fall, and he couldn't pay any attention to the pain in his fingers. He reached back, grabbed Alanna by an outstretched wrist, and *hauled*, bringing her around the corner just as the darts started firing their last three rows. The rows that would have killed them.

 

But they didn't.

 

Two seconds later, there was a sound like a waiter dropped a tray of dishes, and the impaled form of a glass bird skidded to a stop at the end of the hallway, right at James' feet.

 

Panting, Alanna stood up, slipped her grip on the sledgehammer down from near the head where she'd held it during their run, and brought it down on the creature made up of milky white shards.

 

It practically exploded under the impact; glass sprayed out across the floor, some of it molten. Alanna swore as a few droplets hit her legs, cooling quickly but still red hot beads of melted glass.

 

There was silence again.

 

James rolled over, and pushed himself up to his feet. Alanna stooped down to grab the small green orb floating above the body.

 

"Let's find a different way around." They both said at the same time.

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argusthecat

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!

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