"It wasn't like this last time." Alanna winced. She was sitting in one of the chairs, this one devoid of both wheels, and comfort. James was currently applying a bandaid to her left hand, affixing the adhesive to the bits not currently slathered in disinfectant or blood.
They'd backtracked, and taken a different turn about a quarter mile back from the window, and when that path had hit a dead end, gone back and done it again. Along the way, though, as they'd poked through oddly shaped desks and coats with the wrong number of arm sleeves, they'd encountered resistance. An escalating amount of resistance, really.
The disturbing part wasn't that there was more life, all of it hostile. It wasn't even that there were new things trying to kill them. Neither of those were the case. It was that the things that were trying to kill them, were getting smarter. Or maybe just luckier. Either way, the handful of striders that were currently causing problems for them were not making it easy for the pair to fight back.
Every time they stopped to loot, every time they tried to take a water break, every rest or pause for conversation. Every. Single. One. They were there. Six striders, moving as a unit. They came in fast, took one or two hits at the pair of humans, and then they were gone. Back over walls or up into the arches that made up the low-hanging false ceiling above them. The damn things would pop up, harass, and flee.
It was very frustrating to James, who had gotten used to surviving fights and being rewarded with skill orbs. It was even more frustrating to Alanna, who was getting stabbed a lot more than she wanted to.
"Yeah, I'm not a fan either." James told her as he finished the bandage, and she slipped her glove back on carefully. "This isn't something I've seen either."
Alanna flexed her fingers. "We should get out of here." She said. "I'm getting the impression that this place is kind of shit."
James shoved stuff back into the medkit at fast as he could, ignoring organization in favor of getting moving faster. "Agreed. When we get back, we can mark this hallway as unusable. What the fuck is going on with these guys, anyway? It's like fighting Stapler Team Six over here."
"Maybe they're elites. Do you think they drop better orbs?" Alanna asked as they started backtracking once again. The two of them moved with their backs to each other, watching the walls around them with sharp eyes. They both had their weapons in hand, and were in no mood to fuck around anymore. A dozen small attacks had made them wary, and a handful of bruises and puncture wounds had made them angry.
Which was why it was extra bonus frustrating that they hadn't been able to land a single hit on their assailants.
"I doubt it." James said. "Because that would be cool, and so far, no part of this is cool to me." He was a bit bitter. James wasn't like Anesh, who could calmly plan out a way to counter bullshit like this; he was a fan of the stand up fight, the contest of skill and might. And, yeah, he was fine *applying* bullshit tactics to things in here, it just stung to be on the other end of it.
They moved on as quickly as they could, cutting back through the hallways. James almost had a heart attack when they passed a water cooler and Alanna bumped into it, making it move just enough that he thought it was alive. She didn't even take the time to mock him for slamming his hatchet into it; just took a second to assess the situation, made sure the tank was actually not trying to kill them, and then motioned him onward.
Pulses raced and palms sweated as they kept moving. They didn't dare stay still, not here. Nothing physically had changed, they were still moving through slightly warped cubicles, with the occasional feature like a water cooler or potted plant, either of which might try to kill them. There were banners and vines of paper and sticky notes, there were posters and tacked up memos and notes. It all looked more or less what they'd come to expect as normal from the area. The only difference was in the shift in tone.
For the first time, James felt like he was being hunted.
"Fuck." He heard Alanna mutter, and James spun quickly before she caught him and pushed him back. "No, stay there!" She snapped, the tension getting to her. "I just saw one of them, two cubes back. It's just watching, I think it's trying to be a decoy." James really, really wanted to look. The desire was an almost physical pressure at the back of his head, but he resisted it for now.
"Shit." James said, and followed that up quickly with a "No, don't look." To Alanna. "I heard something from one cube up. Might be a shell."
"Might be the rest of them." She muttered back in a low voice.
James' eyes darted around the walls around them. There was only one hallway out of here, unless they got desperate and punched deeper into the territory of these shockingly vicious striders. They had to go this way if they wanted to get out, and stay in their own mapped zone of the dungeon. But now, with Alanna spotting their enemy's scout, and James hearing small noises from up ahead, it was feeling more and more like this was a trap of some kind.
"Okay," James said quietly, "we can probably assume this is a trap. Do you think they'll actually be able to stop us if we just run?"
"No." Alanna said with confidence.
James nodded, and reached behind himself to tap her on the shoulder. "Great. Run." He said it flatly, but with determination, making it clear that he meant it.
Alanna hesitated for a second, tensing up. Then she flexed her muscles, and kicked into sudden and powerful motion, long strides eating up the distance to the end of this hall, and the possibility of safety. James was right on her heels, the thud of his heavier boots mixing with the dull impacts of Alanna's running shoes as the two of them gave up on trying to deal with this menace, and just hoofed it.
The still air whipped by James' head as they built up speed, whistling across his helmet. Alanna almost stumbled as she slammed weight down on her bruised leg, but recovered and kept going. Both of them were already tired, they hadn't had a chance to really rest, they were both battered, and had a few extra stabs in them. But all of that wasn't enough to make either of them not put their whole heart into this run.
The hallway was long. Too long. There were a few tiny gaps between some of the cubicle rows, but they weren't really intersections. And Alanna had heard from Anesh and James just how awful it was to get pinned down in one of those tiny crevices. So they were left with a mostly straight line of about sixty cubes to run down, and hope that they could put enough distance between them and the threat.
They hit their stride, blazing past one of the cubicle doors every second, closing the gap. Both of them felt their breath running short, but the end was in sight. James started to slow a bit to prepare for the right angle of a turn, making sure that he was far enough to Alanna's right that he was in no danger of running over her if she stopped suddenly.
Alanna stopped suddenly.
James skidded to a halt beside her.
He doubled over, gasping for breath, before coming back up with a groan. The reason Alanna had slammed on the breaks was that there was a strider in front of them, standing in the hallway in plain sight. It was holding up a single leg to them, and Alanna had chosen to stop, rather than just power through.
"Why..." James started to ask, breathless. Alanna cut him off, just pointing up a bit. And there, on the arch over the hallway here, formed by the wall of the cubicle on the left side bending backward like an ancient tree, stood four more striders. Two pairs of them, each pair holding between them, with delicate stability, a single not-Starbucks cardboard coffee cup. "Well. Shit." James said. A spike of fear went through him, his legs tensed up as he prepared to lunge away from the oncoming explosion.
But it didn't come, and James started to feel a bit of confusion. Alanna, next to him, tapped her fingers down the handle of her hammer, deliberately not hefting it or making threats. "Are they going to kill us, or..." She muttered out of the side of her mouth at James.
She shut up as the strider on the ground in front of them stepped forward. This was very clearly one of the group that had been harassing them with the constant attacks. It was bright green, one of the variants they'd seen around with a pair of eyes; one on the top of its head, and the other right on the front. James had to repress a snicker, since it also had what looked like a dead strider drawn in marker on its side.
"It has a tiny tattoo!" He whispered to Alanna, who just punched him lightly in the arm to shut him up.
The strider stepped forward, and rolled a single tiny yellow orb out onto the floor. James was confused, though for an odd reason. While Alanna was trying to figure out what it was doing, he was more curious where the hell the thing had been storing the orb. After placing the yellow bead on the floor, the strider tapped its foreleg down on the ground next to it a few times, and then made a sweeping motion toward James and Alanna.
Alanna looked over at him. "What?" She asked simply.
"Oh, we're being robbed!" James said with a surprising amount of relief. "They want our skill orbs!" He sighed deeply. "Yeah, this is totally fine. You okay if I go into my pack to get them out?" He asked directly at the striders in front of him before moving. James was more or less okay trading a few orbs for his life, or at least, to avoid serious burns, and so he planned on being careful to avoid provoking any sudden attacks.
But his partner had other ideas. "Hell no, I'm not giving up my loot!" Alanna said. "We worked hard for those!" It was impressive that she could be indignant even when on the wrong end of explosives.
"Yeah, but they have bombs. Look, they got us this time. And, hey," James turned his words to the strider, "you're gonna let us go after this, right? Like, no backstabbing? We both walk away?" It nodded, and then made the sweeping gesture again. "See? It's fine. We just give them all the orbs we have."
He reached into the outer pouch, pulled out four small and one slightly less small yellows, along with a single red orb, and knelt down to place them gently on the ground next to the one the strider had used to prompt the mugging. The stapler bandit moved over, poked at them, then with a twitch of its leg, shoved the red one back toward James.
"You guys don't care for these either, eh?" He said. "Yeah, I'm not a fan myself." The strider let out a chirping hiss, and another two stapler crabs darted out from the cubicles to the sides, collecting the orbs and scurrying away. "So, no hard feelings for trying to hit you with a hatchet? We can go now?" James asked.
It was almost magic how quickly the staplers vanished. They were gone in a heartbeat, back into hiding spots or up into the ceiling, leaving James and Alanna alone, with only a pair of coffee cups balanced gently on the arch above them.
Alanna shoved James forward. "Let's get out of here before those fall. I'm not going to get fucked up by coffee if I can't sue a company for damages over it. Especially not since you gave away our damned loot."
"It's less giving, more surrendering." James said. "I mean, I don't like it, but I like the part where we get to leave without more injuries." The two of them collected themselves, made sure they still had everything, and then jogged down the rest of the hall, taking a few more turns to get back to the intersection that had offered them this option in the first place. "Oh, also," James said, panting as he caught his breath, "I think he was totally fine with what he got, and didn't mind that we kept a good two thirds of our loot. Nice guy, really."
Alanna let out a snort of laughter as she sucked in air.
The duo found an empty cubicle and pulled up a couple chairs, taking the time away from the territory of the strider gang to sit and actually rest. They went through what was becoming a routine ritual of checking each other for missed damage; wounds that didn't hurt enough to be noticed during a crisis, but should be treated.
"You're all good." Alanna said as they finished up. She stood and twisted her torso around, trying to work out the muscles in her back. "I know they're kind of animal-level intelligence, but I can't believe you bluffed that thing. That was so stupid."
"You were mad at me for giving up the orbs, now you're mad at me for saving them! I don't get any respect!" James said with indignity, sprawled over a chair. "Anyway, it worked, and that's what counts. Also, we're now running low on time. We should head back, we'll have to actually map this out some other day. I'm honestly kind of surprised that Anesh and I stumbled onto the right path the first time, if this is how fucking hard to navigate this place is."
Alanna poked through the cubicle as James talked. Flipping open folders and looking through pages of gibberish reports and numbers, she replied, "Yeah, well, you stumbled on this in the first place, so you're a bit of a lucksack, aren't you?"
Giving an appreciative nod, James hummed. "I am. Anyway. See if you can find anything good, I'm gonna radio Anesh and the others and let them know we're on the way back." Alanna went back to looking through drawers with gusto while James unclipped his radio and thumbed the button. "Hey Anesh, you there? Over."
There was a crackle of static from the handset. A second later, after a warped hiss, James caught what sounded like the end of the sentence. "....ay inside." He heard in between the interference.
"Come again? Over." He clicked the radio's transmitter button, narrowing his eyes as he tried to focus on the words. His hearing was, he admitted, not that great when he couldn't also see the person speaking.
This time around, he got Anesh's voice more or less clearly. "I'm here. What's up?" Then a brief pause. "Over, you ass."
James chuckled to himself, and heard Alanna huff out an amused breath behind him. He smiled as he hit the button again; that joke was probably worn through now, he should stop giving Anesh a hard time about it. "We're just on the way back. Wanted to check in first, let you know. Over." He looked up to see Alanna with a beaming, open mouthed smile on her face. The wild grin apparently the reaction to having found a nerf gun in the desk drawer. "Yeah, we've found a few of those." James told her, voice quiet so he could hear Anesh's response. "Don't get your hopes up, they're always normal."
"Alright," Anesh replied over the radio. "we're back at the fort waiting. Dave went and got hurt, so JP and I are working on adding some more to the fortification while we wait. See you when you get back, yell if you need support. Over."
James couldn't help smile as he heard Anesh's short report. "Thanks, but we should be good on the way FUCK A SHIT WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT." His words turning into a scream as an inferno of heat and light roared over the top of his head from behind where he was sitting. The orb of death hit the far wall of the cubicle, and didn't even slow down. In an eyeblink, it had tunneled through at least two dozen walls, and was out of sight.
Turning slowly in the chair, James looked up disapprovingly at Alanna's face. She sheepishly avoided eye contact, casually and cautiously holding out the nerf gun to him by its barrel. One of the six darts in its cylinder suspiciously absent.
"So, you *told* me..." Alanna started.
James just cut her off with a wave of his hand. "I know, yes, I know. That was my fault. Naturally, something was going to go wrong. The stuff spawned in the dungeon is, of course, stuff spawned in the dungeon."
"That's tautological." She quipped.
"Also correct, and you know exactly what it means." He gingerly took the weapon, and popped it open to start pulling out each of the darts. "Here. You hold the ammo, I'll hold the gun. That way, there's a lot less of a chance that we plasmaficate one of... us."
Alanna raised her eyebrows in shock. "You want to bring this with..." She trailed off. "Yeah, I just thought about it. Of course you want the fucking fireball gun. Duh." She opened up one of the side pouches of her backpack and tucked the remaining five darts in.
"James?! James! Are you there?!" The radio crackled from the floor.
With a slight wince, James bent down and snatched it up. "Yeah, sorry. Still alive. Just a small accident. Nothing to worry about, over."
Another burst of static, with James barely able to make out a few words in the mess of noise. “**ave**... **...**ever**”
“You’ll have to repeat that, friend.” He said down the line. “I’m having a hell of a time hearing. Think we’re too far away for these things. Over.”
"I said, are you sure? Over." The last word was added hastily, and even through the low fidelity of the walkie-talkie, James could hear worry in Anesh's voice.
He nodded, before stopping and realizing that Anesh could not in fact *see* him. "Yup. We're good. Really. We'll see you when we get back. Over." He looked up at Alanna. "Alright, if you're through trying to burn down the dungeon, let's get going."
The two of them zipped up their bags, Alanna shoving a folded up jacket into hers to pad out the extra space. James gave her a look as she took the article of clothing from the coat hook in the cubicle they were occupying. "What?" She said. "I didn't find a wallet in here, and I figure this can go for twenty bucks on Craigslist."
"Isn't that a bit desperate?" He asked as they made their way back into the safer territory near the main door, and started encountering familiar signposts.
Alanna almost snapped back. "You were literally talking earlier about how your rent went up again and you'd welcome the extra cash."
"Yeah, but not, like..." James thought about it. "I guess that's a good point, really. I've been actually kind of confused, since our bills went up, and I don't actually know why? Like, we actually got a green that lowered our rent at one point."
"Wait, you got a *what*?" Alanna said. "I remember Anesh telling me the green orbs influenced places, but he kind of neglected to mention they could do *that*"
"Oh, man, yeah, the greens are weird." James told her as they took a corner, checking beforehand to make sure there weren't any surprises. "You know the local diner that we always end up at, despite how their food is too greasy, and makes half of us sick?"
"It's open twenty five hours a day now."
Alanna frowned at him, eyes wide. "Thaaaaat's not even a little okay. Remember how I told you guys that I was okay with how you were using this place? I'm changing my mind."
In defense of his position, James told her, "We also lowered the crime rate at a hospital! And got them new chairs!"
There was a pause as she processed that information. "Okay, I'm sorry, was that... from the skorbs? Or just in general? I'm losing track."
"From the green orbs. Please don't let Anesh convince you that it's okay to call them skorbs. He speaks only in lies and terrible name ideas."
"He named the tumblefeed."
James nodded, then held up a hand as he checked the inside of one of the cubicles they were passing. They snuck by in silence, doing their best to not wake the shellaxy sleeping in there. Without talking about it, they'd both sort of decided that they were done hunting for the day, and that getting out without any more fights was the best plan of action. After they'd cleared a few more rows, and James was pretty sure there wasn't anything left to challenge them, he finally let himself relax.
"And there's the door. You ready to go home?" He asked her.
Alanna let out a gasping sigh. "Oh, hell yes. This armor is itchy as hell, and I want a shower. Hey, how do you guys handle the fact that this place ruins your sleep schedule?"
"Badly." James told her flatly.
The two of them were laughing as they crossed the open area that he and Anesh had carved out to make Fort Door. Their little base was a bit exposed what with all the missing cubicles around it, but James still got the feeling of a fort in a jungle when he saw it on his way back. It was amazing how, even though it was pretty big, and getting bigger judging by how Anesh and JP were locking another wall into place, James never saw it from a distance. There was always that moment of taking one last turn, and seeing "home". That bit where he knew he was going to make it out safe, and that it was time to sit down, relax, divide up the loot, and reminisce about what they'd seen.
He smiled as he walked forward. He wondered if Anesh had any good stories from today. Maybe he'd bet a few skill orbs on finding the weirdest stuff.
James felt his luck, like his spirits, riding pretty high.
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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!