"Turn around!" Was not the first thing James was expecting to hear Anesh shout at him as he and Alanna took long, casual steps down their hallway toward Fort Door. But it was what was being yelled at him, and that was just something he was going to have to deal with.
"No!" He replied in a cheerful and upbeat tone, putting just enough emphasis on the word to make it pop, without sounding like he was actually mad at Anesh. This got a snort of laughter from Alanna next to him. At the end of the aisle, Anesh just crossed his arms and gave James a disappointed look. "Oh, come on." James said. "Is this the part where we find out that you're betraying us and leaving us to fend for ourselves in the dungeon, like some kind of Saturday Morning Cartoon Villain?"
Anesh pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration before responding. "No, James, this is the part where I just wanted to test something. Calm down."
"Oh." James was almost disappointed. "I'm almost disappointed, really." He told Alanna.
She gave him a look out of the side of her eye, just barely tilting her head. "Are you looking forward to that for some reason?" Alanna asked him with dark curiosity.
"Nah, not really. But, I mean, it would be kind of a good excuse to..." James started to answer, but a brief pause was the perfect opportunity to be cut off.
Both Anesh and Alanna, simultaneously, let out a sharp "No." For both of them, it perfectly summed up their opinions on being trapped in the dungeon for the one week to three years that they estimated the door was closed for on this side. No. They didn't want it. Maybe James would be kinda happy leaving behind his whole life to become the most enthusiastic wandering dungeon dweller, but the others actually had life goals, and they were not at all keen on giving them up.
Burying the kind of dark thoughts for a second, Anesh raised a hand in front of them. "Okay, but really, can you blokes just walk back down this hall for a minute? You can come back, obviously, just need to see something."
Alanna shrugged, and turned around, and James followed shortly after. They moved fast, having already scouted through most of these cubicles, and also knowing they were in a relatively safe area of the office. With nothing on his mind to talk about, James just counted steps. After about twenty paces, they heard Anesh call out to them from back down the hall, and turned around. "Can we come back now?" James asked flatly, and got a beckoning wave from Anesh in response.
Giving a frustrated sigh, he started back, ignoring Alanna's grin. He let his mind wander, running through what their debriefing was going to be like, and also wondering if everyone would be okay with doing it at a diner, so that he could get some real food inside him. James was, it turned out, *starving*, and dungeon candy wasn't going to cut it for nutrition.
Before he knew it, they were back in front of Anesh. "So?" Their friend prompted
"So what?" James said.
"Did you notice?" Anesh asked again, a bit eager.
Alanna, James suddenly noticed, was scowling again. "Hang on a fucking second..." She said. Motioning James to stay put, she walked back down the hall, counting off out loud. Ten steps down, she stopped, and turned around. Fifteen steps later, she was back in front of them.
"Wait, what the hell?" James asked, startled. "What did you do?"
Anesh gestured energetically at the hallway. "I knew it! Hah! It's longer in one direction!"
"Does that... is this a problem?" James asked, looking between Alanna's annoyed glare and Anesh's excited smile. "Is this good? Look, I'll be honest, I might have a concussion and it's kind of hard to think about if this is something that I should think about."
Alanna opened her mouth to say something rude about the hallway, but Anesh just rolled over the conversation. "It's amazing! The chance to observe non-Euclidean space in person is always amazing! You're physically traversing space that is only present in a specific vector!"
"This is like the mobius hallway, isn't it? You're just really jazzed that the dungeon is breaking space." James sighed. "Okay, so, where is it?" He asked.
"Where's what?" Anesh replied with his own question.
James waved a hand around. "There's gotta be an orange orb here somewhere. Personally, I think that might be a bit more useful than a hallway that takes longer to get through. Also, wait, hang on. What does it look like from your perspective when we were walking back?"
"Like you were walking back." Anesh said, quizzically. "I don't know if I understand the question. Also, I... guess we can find the orb, sure. Knowing this hall is here is useful, it means there's probably a lot more small twists out there, probably that we just didn't notice." Anesh was, personally, the kind of person that would really like to poke at those refractions and warps in the fabric of space, no matter how much the human instinct that they were potentially lethal was.
The trio walked back into the fort, now quite a bit expanded from when James and Alanna had left it. "No," James said, "what I mean is, how does it look when we take steps on floor that you literally cannot see from that angle. Are we just walking in place?"
"Oh." Anesh thought about it, glancing up at the ceiling. "I... hm. Bloody hell, I don't know if I can answer that. You saw Alanna come back, right? It didn't look like anything, but it clearly looked like something. So... that."
James had a headache from this. "Anesh, you are my friend, but if I find any broken physics around here, I'm ripping the orbs out and worrying about the frontiers of science later, okay?"
"Yeah, that's fair." Anesh conceded. "Anyway. How was your expedition?"
"Hungry." James told him. "I was actually gonna ask. Do you guys want to split up the orbs we all got here, and then go get dinner and talk about..."
"Yes!" "Yes please." "Hell yes, there's no food in here." The barrage of responses from the people around him caught him off guard.
James just nodded. "Okay, great. Glad we settled that." He unstrapped and started dropping chunks of armor plate onto one of the chairs in the main section of the fort. Alanna joined him, and a couple minutes later, the two of them had lost about sixty pounds of bulky protection.
"Um... James, why is there a pencil in the back of your armor?" Dave asked, coming out from one of the side rooms. "Wait, why are there holes in this armor at all? This is supposed to be armor!"
"There's holes in the armor because there aren't holes in me." James said. "Ergo, the armor works. Calm down." He and Alanna emptied the orbs out of their bags onto the table, adding them to the smaller pile Anesh and the others had already made. "Also, Anesh, do you have a list of things we need to buy? I have one now, but I just want you to know that 'some kind of bowl' should go on it." James said as he scrambled to stop a couple small yellows from rolling away.
Anesh nodded. "We should compare lists later. Anyway. How do we want to mark this up? You two obviously brought back more. Do we.... hm. We didn't think this through at all. How DO we divide up loot? Especially the orbs."
There was spike of fear in James' chest. He'd kind of known this might be a problem, but had hoped that, somehow, it would all sort itself out without any kind of issue. No one would have to actually talk about their relative contributions, or complain that they weren't getting enough. It looked like Anesh and Alanna didn't have any easy answers either, though he couldn't see the same level of social anxiety on their faces that he had.
To his surprise, it was actually JP who came to their rescue. "Hey, okay, this is actually something that's not too hard to manage. It's just loot shares, right? I was reading about this the other day. We do it like old pirates used to."
"Why were you just reading about pirates?" James let his amused curiosity override his concerns.
JP pointed a finger at him, and proudly declared that "If no one makes you learn, then learning counts as fun. Calvin and Hobbes taught me that. Also, pirates are rad. Anyway, it's easy. We put them all in a pile, and divide up by shares. One share a person, do something awesome and you get another share. Do something *useful* and you also get another share. So, Anesh and James probably have two by default, just for being the guy who manages everything, and the guy who gets us in, right?"
Alanna raised a hand. "I have a concern." JP nodded at her to go on. "What happens when, like tonight, James and I brought back more? I totally don't mind sharing, especially since you derps are new here, but how do you balance that?"
Giving off a winning smile, JP answered. "It's not always even. That's a personal call, right? If someone is never pulling their weight, that's bad. But there's always going to be imbalances, and if we're all here, it'll even out over time. I don't know about you, but I don't think we need some kind of crazy achievement system to decide who gets what. Though, we could keep anything that's especially cool out of the pool, as a reward to someone who really earned it."
James let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. "That's... surprisingly fair. And yeah, I totally am okay with you guys splitting some of our loot. It seems like a good system. Thank you for... wait, were you reading about pirates and their systems because of the dungeon? Did you actually plan for this?"
JP just smiled in reply. "Alright," he said, "if everyone is okay with it?" There were nods. "Then roll to see who picks first, and we'll go around the table."
"You just have dice on you! You son of a bitch!" Alanna exclaimed. "You *were* planning for this!" She barked out a laugh.
A tap on James' torso from the desk he was leaning on reminded him of something. "Oh, right. Before we split, we do need to take a couple out to feed Rufus and Ganesh. That's just general policy." Everyone nodded at this. Well, everyone except Dave. He still wasn't on board with the exceptionally spikey spider that Rufus reminded him of, but he also wasn't prepared to argue too much. "Okay then!" James said. "Let's get this divided up and go get dinner."
In the end, there was plenty for everyone. Or at least, enough that everyone got something. Alanna got one of the blues, Anesh took the other. And after carefully, meticulously marking down the exact HTML color codes for each of the yellow orbs, the group burned through them together.
For James, the results were a mix of impressive and amusing.
[+1 Skill Rank : Driving - Pickup Truck]
[+1 Skill Rank : Communication - Active Listening]
[+1 Skill Rank : Templating - Phone Book - New York]
[+1 Skill Rank : Criminology - Statistics]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Bookbinding]
"Hey, I got the same skill again!" He exclaimed. "That's never happened before!" He set his mind down the path of thinking about phone books. He could instantly recall, with near perfect clarity, the proper procedure for adding advertising images and special case fonts. "Oh." He muttered out loud. "Kinda wish it'd happened to something better. What did you get, Anesh?"
Anesh had, in fact, gotten the following:
[+1 Skill Rank : Writing - Advertising Copy]
[+1 Skill Rank : Aerobics]
[+1 Skill Rank : Climbing - Rappelling]
[+2 Skill Rank : Acting - Improvisation]
[+2 Skill Rank : Disguise - Camouflage - Prop Use]
"Well." He said. "I can now safely start my career as a stage performer." There was a moment of quiet as everyone looked at him expectantly. "No, no," Anesh shook his head, "it's not like the one that put half a Shakespearean playbook into my head. I'm not gonna start quoting lines." Everyone looked disappointed, and before James or Dave could bug him further on it, Anesh deflected their attention. "Alanna, anything good?"
Alanna considered her gains.
[+1 Skill Rank : Falconry]
[+1 Skill Rank : Stealth]
[+1.8 Skill Ranks : Etiquette - Local Government - US - Northwest]
[+1 Skill Rank : Arms - Jitte]
"Yeeeees." She said, carefully. "Yes." I've decided I want a bird. And a sword. JP, what happened to your sword?" Alanna looked over at him with the question, only to see a look of sorrow and loss on her friend's face. "Ah. Um. Dave! What did you get! Quick, change the topic!"
Despite his thoughts on the quality of the segue, JP had scored a couple interesting skills himself.
[+1 Skill Rank : City Planning]
[+1 Skill Rank : Lockpicking]
"I think I'm either a criminal, or a civil servant?" He said.
"Fuck, that was my thing!" Alanna exclaimed from the side.
Dave let out a confused noise. "Which one? Also, it's not like he stole it from you."
JP put a reassuring hand on Dave's shoulder. "She's just kidding, friend. Anyway, I want to know what you got."
Dave had gotten something less interesting. Dave also had taken the only red orb, not noticing that everyone else had pointedly avoided it when picking shares.
[+1 Emotional Resonance Rank : Liberty]
[+2 Skill Rank : Animals - Horse]
"I got... horse?!" Dave cried out bitterly. "Why horse?! That's such a weird feeling, and all I get out of it is horse?"
"It could be worse." James told him, reassuringly.
Dave glared over at him, half-snarling before taking a small breath to calm down. "How?"
James put on a knowing expression and nodded sagely. He knew Dave had some small anger problems, and he didn't want him to think that he'd been cheated. "Trust me. It's better than having a phone book memorized."
"I... yeah." Dave conceded. "Yeah, I can see that. But now I can't stop thinking about horses. This is not my fetish."
Anesh facepalmed from where he was packing up their gear, while Alanna and JP just started laughing boisterously. "Dammit, Dave." Anesh muttered, holding back a smile.
"Alright!" James shouldered his actual backpack, giving Rufus a few pets goodbye before leaving. "Enough about how much Dave is or isn't into horses. Food! Now!"
It was with a bright mood that everyone left, waved off by Rufus and Ganesh. They'd taken a risk, bringing in more people, but James felt like this opened up a lot of new possibilities to them. He had a little more direction now, plans with Alanna for a shopping trip, and plans with the group for direct exploration of the zone that he and Anesh assumed were the bathrooms. All in all, James felt like he was being picked up to ride this success through the next week. Just a little extra nudge in the right direction for him.
They filed out of the heavy metal security door. When they were on the other side, and the door swung shut, it felt reassuring in its bulk. Like it could hold the entire dungeon with no problem at all.
James filed that thought away under 'I sure hope so at least'.
"Owd oo urt yerhelf?" James tried to speak around a mouthful of pasta and chicken.
They were sitting in a booth at their local diner, Parlour Street. It was the same place that James and Anesh had accidentally bent time around, and the effects of that tampering were currently entirely unnoticed. If anything had changed over the last month, they couldn't spot it right away.
They'd all driven here mostly separately, and had, by mutual agreement, refrained from talking too much about their actions this evening to avoid having to repeat things. Now, they'd settled in, gotten some food and a mostly clear part of the diner, and were settling in for their after-action reports.
Around them, the place had a handful of customers sitting in the comfortable padded booths. The kind of people who were out at four in the morning; people who had to wake up too early, or college kids who went to bed way too late. No crowds of younger kids at this hour, since school was back in session, but James wouldn't be surprised if a few dumb children had decided to stay up until 5 AM with their friends, blowing their money from part time jobs at the only place in town open past their bedtimes.
After all, that's what he'd done when he was younger.
Across the table, Dave looked up from his pie. "Sorry, what?"
Taking a large swallow of his food, James repeated himself in a slightly more understandable voice. "Ahem. I said, how did you hurt yourself? Anesh said you got injured, and that's why you guys turned back, but you seem fine."
"I didn't hurt *myself*." Dave insisted, indignantly. "I was attacked by one of the monsters that I was not at all warned about."
"A shellaxy tackled him." Anesh clarified, sipping a drink that he insisted was coffee, but that James thought had more the consistency of road tar. "He sprained his ankle. It's very ignoble.'
Next to him, JP nodded, talking over Dave's protesting cry. "That was also the thing that ate my sword."
"Oh yeah! How'd that happen? Story time!" Alanna demanded.
JP just shrugged casually, a fluid motion that felt strangely practiced. "Well, it wasn't a very *good* sword, mind you. So, I tried stabbing it in the... mouth... bits... and it just ate it. Bit it right in half. James, didn't you say one of those bit you once?" He asked, to which James nodded, already chewing more food.
"They're nasty buggers, aren't they?" Anesh chimed in. "Anyway, James! Alanna! How'd your scouting go? Did you get us a clear path back?"
"Nnnnooo. No we did not." James admitted. "We had some problems. We did check out four potential paths, all of which are no-gos if we want an actual safe run, though Alanna has a map that we can expand and use to plan if we do want to go with one of the riskier areas in the future. Found a few more traps, had to deal with more organized creatures, and also ran into a window."
"A window?" Anesh asked, raising an eyebrow.
JP leaned forward a bit. "Isn't the dungeon in another dimension? Does it have an outside? Did you *find* the outside?"
"A window. We don't know that for sure. And no, we didn't find the outside. Though if it does have an outside, it's not friendly. A bird came through the window. Kind of. Look, I don't know how to explain it, the long and short is that it tried to kill us and probably could have." James ran out of breath at the end of his frantic series of answers. "The point is, we have two options left on intersections that go back toward where the bathrooms should be. We can check those next week, maybe as a group so that if one of the pans out, we can all be there. Alanna, am I forgetting anything?"
Alanna looked up from her phone, caught in the middle of a bit of sandwich. "Nah, not really. Oh, we found a... file. On one of the computers. James thinks the dungeon uses password protected PCs as treasure chests, so we should try checking those more, if only to prove him wrong."
"Thanks..." James muttered. He'd caught that Alanna didn't really want to describe what they'd found in detail, though, so he let it drop.
"Aside from that," She continued, "Anesh, I wanted to ask you. Do you have any idea why that place has money that's clearly US currency, but gift cards for places that don't exist?"
Anesh started answering right away. "Yeah, that's because it's... um. Huh. Wait, hang on, you're right, that doesn't make any sense, does it?"
"Why not?" Dave asked. "The rest of it doesn't make sense either."
Anesh shook his head at that. "No, see, the money is random, right? And sometimes it has weird denominations, but it's always in the style and format of America Bucks. But the gift cards don't do that. They're clearly gift cards, but to companies that don't exist. If it followed the same pattern, they should be Starbucks cards with pictures of eyeballs or something creepy, and random amounts on them. This is like if we were finding money from the Republic of Chad."
"That's a real place." JP commented over his drink.
"I... forgot about that. Fine, money from the... Empire of Wank, I don't know." Anesh fluttered a hand in the air, dismissing that line of thinking. "The point is, Alanna's right. It is weird. Though Dave is also right."
"I am?!" Dave exclaimed, excited.
"He is?" James asked, disbelieving.
"It's the dungeon." Anesh said. "Sometimes, I think, we're going to have to accept that the place is just... a bit... weird."
Everyone nodded. Even for JP and Dave, with only a few hours of experience in there, they could see it. It wasn't always going to make sense, and they were just going to have to roll with it sometimes.
James leaned back, full of food and enjoying the company. This felt, to him, like exactly what he'd always actually wanted out of life. He was part of an adventuring party, a real one. He fought things for a living now. Well, he also took tech support calls for a living, but that wasn't important. He was an explorer, he'd seen things no other human had, and it felt... magical.
He was doing it; making his dreams come true. Anesh wanted his math degree and to expand the fields of human understanding, Alanna wanted to be in charge of either a city, a nation, or an entire species, JP was going into showbiz or something, and Dave... probably had realistic ambitions. But for James, this was it. This was the height of his desires. Or at least, the basis of them. He wasn't trying to use the dungeon to pull himself up to something greater. The dungeon *was* the something greater that he aspired to.
It held treasures beyond what humanity had access to on Earth. It concealed secrets that would baffle the most ardent seeker. It had threats that challenged beyond anything James had ever seen.
And it had life in it; not just monsters, and there was a very good reason that James and Anesh refrained from calling them 'monsters' too often. Such life that would make David Attenborough drool with wonder. It certainly caught James' imagination. Not to mention that he now had a very real friend in Rufus, much as Anesh did in Ganesh. While it was mostly clear to him that the life in the dungeon wasn't exactly human-level in terms of intelligence, they were obviously individuals, and smart enough to be friendly with. James couldn't really imagine going a week without stopping in to say hi to his stapler buddy; and if the time ever came to leave the dungeon forever, well.
He'd bring Rufus out to see the wider world. And figure out a way forward from there, consequences be damned.
Someone talking brought him back to reality. Alanna had just asked him a question, and everyone was looking at him. "What?" He said, blinking. "Sorry, repeat that?"
"Heh. You spaced out there." Alanna said. "I asked you what you think we should add to the equipment list you've got if we plan on intentionally fighting a swarm of striders."
"Oh. Um... Running shoes?" James made a stab at a joke. "Really, I dunno. Seems like a terrible idea. Let's not."
"Fiiiiiine." Anesh groaned from the other side of the table. "We should find some way to harvest a whole bunch of orbs, though!" He said. "Also, I just realized how tired I am. It's... morning. And I always forget that the time dilation makes me be awake for too bloody long. James! Fetch the check!"
"You get really weird when you're tired." James chuckled.
One by one, the group paid, said their goodnights, and filtered out. Dave and JP both promised to keep in touch over the next week, and the group committed to getting some kind of way to message each other for planning and prep work. Anesh told James that he'd see him at home, and took off too, leaving only James and Alanna in the booth.
Stifling a yawn, James reached into his pocket and pulled out the USB stick, setting it on the table.
"I don't know if it'll play back the same thing again," he told her, "but you should keep this. It seemed... important to you."
Alanna nodded, before speaking softly. "He was my dad, you know?"
"I know." James said in an equally quiet voice. "Anyway. I need to go sleep. Let me know if it turns out that thing is eating our memories or something."
"Sure thing punchy. Sleep well." Alanna called after him as he left.
The cool late night air felt good on James' skin as he walked to his car. Above him, stars shone through the clear night sky. He smiled as he settled into the driver's seat. He was happy to have done something kind for his friend, and already excited, daydreaming for next week.
Support "The Daily Grind"
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!