James fell through stained glass, glittering shards of color vanishing out of the corner of his eye. His vision could see the floor below him flying toward his face, but he kept hitting window after window of intricately crafted glass art, his falling form destroying artifact after artifact of greater creators before him. He tried to stop himself, but couldn't gain control. He was spiraling downward, toward a silver blade and a the shade of a green tree and a scarf on an small grave marker and...
He stood atop a hill, overlooking a town. There was no detail to the buildings, just washed out blocks of grey, motionless in the distance. Beside him, stood a person who was not human, but wore his face.
"What is this?" James asked, strangely aware of the state of the dream he was in.
Secret stared out over the town. "You were panicking. I am trying to help."
A moment passed. James took a seat on the grass beneath him, finding it more like the texture of scratchy carpet than any plant. "What is this place?" He asked Secret. "I've never... felt... a city like this before."
"This is what I imagine a city to be." The thought-thing that was Secret replied. "I have only so many bits of dream and memory; many of them go toward my Self." James could somehow hear the focus and important weight of 'Self', despite the monotone that Secret talked in. He looked at his dream companion for a long moment before Secret filled in the silent air with, "I am finding that I enjoy creating ideas."
James shrugged. Or, thought about shrugging. He didn't have fine control in his dream. "It's good to have a hobby."
"Yes." The thing wearing his face nodded. "I understand that, I believe. I also believe. This is a new experience." His double turned to face him. "But that is not why I brought you here."
There was a moment where James felt a rush of worry flood through his mind. The silent air was punctuated by the sound of an aircraft going overhead, and a massive shadow passing by them on the ground, though when he looked, there was neither sun nor a plane to shade it. He looked back down to the city of grey blocks and unclear streets. "Why *did* you bring me here?" He asked hesitantly.
He could almost hear the thing chuckle. It was a warm and comforting feeling, one that felt like it was pulled from James' memories of his uncle's house when he was three years old. Most likely, he thought, it was.
"I have no ill will to you." Secret said. "Your mind is an interesting home. You do not fill all of it out, and there are places within yourself that you are not. When you come here to visit, there are many more places. I have been making sure they do not become troublesome for you. You would want to know, I think, that someone is at your home." He moved fluidly, for the first time James had experienced him doing so, and pushed a hand against James' forehead. "Wake up please." Secret said, and shoved him backward onto the grass.
James jolted awake, the sensation of falling backward without moving leaving an unpleasant warm feeling spreading down his neck. The memories of his dream rippling away until he was left with just the reminder of a city that was never alive, and the fact that apparently Secret was keeping an eye on his surroundings while he slept.
File that thought away under "potentially useful, certainly worrying."
More disturbing was the soft knock that came from his bedroom door a second after he'd snapped back into wakefulness.
James felt a spike of fear, and the combat reflexes he'd been developing over the last couple months kicked in as he rolled out of his mattress to land in a crouch on the floor, leaving his blankets in a tangled pile. His hand dipped under the bed and gripped at the reassuringly solid chunk of metal that was his crowbar. It wasn't until he started standing up that his brain, still groggy and waking up, made the connection that if someone was quietly knocking, then they *probably* weren't here to try to kill him.
He checked his bedside clock. 4:14 AM. He'd really fallen asleep early today. The dungeon run a couple days ago had thrown his sleep schedule for a loop, and he was left struggling through work, almost dozing off on the drive home, and flopping into bed as soon as he'd gotten back. And now, someone was ruining it for him.
Staggering over, reasserting his balance as he moved, James cracked the door open a bit. "Wat." He mumbled out of a dry mouth. To his surprise, it wasn't Anesh bugging him for input on the shopping list he'd handed off, but Alanna. She stood there in the hallway, looking a bit awkward waiting in the dim light of the streetlights outside. "Alanna?" James looked up at her. "Why're you here?" He opened the door a bit more. "Actually, how are you here? How'd you get in my house?"
"You guys gave me a key, like, a year ago." She said. "Can I talk to you...?" She asked apprehensively.
"Yeah, sure. What's up?" James asked softly, hearing the concern in her voice. He opened his door and turned back into his room, turning on his computer and the lights. "Are you doing okay?"
Alanna stepped in after him, hands shoved in her pockets. "I was... um... cute underwear." She said, a small smile forming on her face, a hint of laughter in her voice.
James looked down. "Dammit." He grabbed the comforter off his bed and wrapped himself up in it. "Sorry. Or, well, sorry that you're going to comment on that for the rest of my life, I guess."
"It's fine, I woke you up." She said, not pressing him. That fact alone, that Alanna didn't follow up on a chance to poke fun at him, set James to worrying. Alanna was many things, but 'restrained' was not one of them, not when it came to chances to throw banter and jokes around. James perched himself on the edge of his bed, tapping at the floor around Lily's small pen with his foot, while Alanna took a deep breath and pulled a USB stick out of her pocket. "So..."
James glanced over. "Oh, hey. Is that the one from yesterday? Did it work?"
She sat down in his computer chair, the PC now open to his desktop. "Yeah, it... worked. We just didn't get what it *did*." Alanna leaned down and plugged the USB drive in, clicking open the folder on James' computer.
"There are any number of ways you could have told me about this that weren't 'coming into my house at 4 AM and using my compy without asking." James said without much malice. He rolled himself over to the other side of the bed where his desk and computer sat, coming up to a sitting position with his back against the wall, so he could face Alanna as she sat in his chair. "A text message. A phone call. Waiting until dawn. Any or all of these would have been normal human modes of communication. What's so important that you couldn't wait?"
Alanna looked at him, concern in her eyes. "This." She said, and hit the play button on the audio file that they'd pulled out of the dungeon.
"Doing anything this weekend?" The voice was a guy, either a teenager or early twenties. It was a cocky voice. James hated him already.
"No and go fuck yourself." Came the reply, a voice that James instantly recognized as Alanna, though the fact that the words sounded angry instead of flatly delivered made him think this was a younger version of her.
There was a long gap where the only noise was the sound of a shitty teenager getting rejected, a chunk of 'uh's and 'buh's that made James almost giggle, before the reply of, "Fine, fuck you, you stupid wh"
"Who the hell was that asshole?" James asked idly.
Alanna turned in the chair to look at him. "*That* was Scott Ogden. He was a douche I knew in high school, in that he kept hitting on me in high school, and I ended up getting suspended for punching him. Repeatedly."
James cocked his head, tapping his chin. "As in, you got suspended multiple times? Or you got suspended once..."
"For multiple punchings, yes. That one. Anyway." Alanna made a chopping motion with a hand. "This is a different conversation. I've listened to about two dozen awkward moments from my past in the last day. Every time I hit play, it's a different one." She pointed at the screen. "Always thirty seconds, always two people, always my voice, even if it was when I was a kid."
"So?" James asked.
"So, remember when you played it?" Alanna asked, with a voice that indicated that she clearly knew the answer and was leading James down the right path.
He nodded slightly, then stopped himself. "Look, I'm kinda tired. What's the point?"
Alanna just hit the play button again, listened for a half second, and then restarted the file. She did this a few times, motioning for James to wait for a second while she hunted for something specific. James threw himself back on his bed, leaning over the other edge to hold out a hand to the iLipede that was now awake and active and moving around her pen. He scooped Lily up and started 'petting' her, which in this case meant fiddling with the touch screen and fiddling with some of the more mundane apps. Lily seemed to like that, so it's what he went with. He also opened up the identification app and checked the progress bar. 99%. Almost done. But he could be a bit more patient; they'd learned early on that they couldn't put the iLipede to work 24/7. Lily actually needed breaks.
After about two minutes, James started to ask, "Is there a *point* to..." just in time for Alanna to shush him, harshly.
"Wanna get something to eat?" It was a girl's voice, bright and bubbly. James felt a pull in his chest as he heard it, the feeling that he just wanted to smile a little.
It was, of course, Alanna who answered. "Sure, I guess. Um... what do you like?"
"Oh, I'll eat anything! I just figured that if you're gonna be over more, I should get to know you a bit better!" Came the response.
On the recording, Alanna chuckled a bit. "What a direct approach to life. Does that..."
"Okay, so?" James asked "Alanna, please, just tell me. I'm really tired, and the six extra hours of not-sleep from the delve did not help. What's the *point*?" He felt some frustration creep into his voice, and instantly regretted it. The last thing James ever wanted was to be pissed off at his friends, and he knew how easy it was to slip into an anger spiral if he let his exhaustion control his emotions. "Sorry, sorry, I..."
"It's fine. The point?" Alanna leaned over and grabbed his shoulders through the heavy blanket. "That was the same person from your conversation."
There was beat, and James felt like the floor had just vanished beneath him. "Oh." He knew the answer already, but he still couldn't stop himself from asking the question. "Who is it?" As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew what she was going to say.
Alanna stared at him, grip tightening in anxiety. "I have no idea." Her voice cracked. "And I've heard her voice six times now. James, what the hell is going on?" She sounded like she was about to cry; and James could absolutely understand why. The situation was sowing seeds of panic in his chest, and he wasn't sure what to do.
Long term, he may not have had a plan. But in this moment, there was one thing he knew he could do. Setting Lilly down on the bed next to him, he leaned in and wrapped his arms around Alanna, pulling her into a hug. She jerked in surprise at the physical comfort, but after a second, returned it, almost crushing James' spine in her steel embrace.
The two of them sat like that for a couple minutes, with Alanna catching her breath, and James just trying to not freak out any further. "Okay." He finally said, leaning back. "Now is probably a bad time to remind you I'm not wearing pants."
Alanna let out a wet snort, cutting off a sob, which quickly turned into gasps of laughter. After a minute, she pulled back, wiping at her nose and eyes. "Yeah, good timing, Romeo." She said as she sat back down on the end of the bed. "But seriously. What... what the fuck do we do about this?"
"Well, step one is easy." James said, and Alanna raised her eyebrows at him in disbelief. "We go through more conversations, and see if we can profile this girl. We also need to decide if this is someone real who we forgot, or if this is just one weird file fucking with us. Because, let's be honest here, the dungeon isn't exactly light on the bullshit, right?"
"Right. Right!" Alanna's mind grabbed onto the life preserver that James threw her. Of course this could be a trick; just another trap from a place that was already full of the things. Though, she felt in her heart that it wasn't true, and James would have agreed, they both kept that to themselves and let it stand that this could be the Office's idea of a prank. "So. Um. Do you want to hit the button next, or should I?"
James toppled backward onto the bed, letting his muscles go limp. "Uggggh. You do it for a minute. If I'm not sleeping anyway, then I'm going to put pants on, and go get magical coffee."
"Before I do, I wanted to ask. Why aren't we abusing the shit out of that coffee when we go delving?" Alanna asked him.
"Oh, I thought you'd have guessed already, considering how last week went." James told her as he shuffled around on his floor with the blanket still covering him, trying to find a pair of sweatpants. "It's because it's still coffee. The literal-actual-magic part doesn't change the fact that if you drink a thermos of that, you're gonna need a bathroom in a hurry. And, as noted, we literally cannot find our way back to the bathrooms."
Alanna rolled that thought around her head. "Ew." She settled on. "But, since you *have* a bathroom in this apartment, can I have a cup too?"
"Sure thing." James said with a smile.
As he walked out into the hall, he half-closed the door so the noise wouldn't wake Anesh. Behind him, he heard a conversation start playing as Alanna didn't bother waiting for him. As he went to brew coffee for the two of them, he hoped that he could get his hands to stop shaking before he got back. The last thing Alanna needed to see right now was that he was probably just as afraid as she was.
"Hey Secret." He muttered under his breath. "Anything you can do about that?" He asked the empty cold air of his living room.
But there was no answer this time.
Anesh woke up normally. He got up ten minutes before his alarm, stood out of bed, and did his now-normal morning stretching routine. After a short set of pushups and squats, putting on reasonable clothing for the early days of spring, and a trip to the bathroom, he got his bookbag together, and made for the front door of the flat.
Given that it was seven AM, he was a bit surprised to see James and Alanna at the living room table. There was a laptop open with nothing on it but an audio file, with a set of headphones running out of it, the two of them splitting the earbuds.
"At the table" was kind of a generous description. They were on the couch that took up one of the long sides of the table, both of them fast asleep, half-leaning on each other. He was kind of amazed they could sleep through each other's snoring.
The table itself had most of the stuff he'd been working on pushed to one end, and a new set of notes spread across it. Anesh peered over at it, letting his curious nature keep him from breakfast for a minute. A lot of the papers were what looked like short conversations, with one party in each one underlined. The rest of the paper was spread out, and composed a brainstorming web. At the edge of the table, left specifically for him, was a note with his name on it that just said "99%"
"What are you two pets working on?" He muttered to himself as he read. "Sarah Moyle, eh? Is this a... character creation project?" He looked over the web; they'd done a good job emphasising keywords and then going into greater detail off of those, but a lot of the descriptions ended in reference numbers. It didn't take him long to connect them to the conversation logs he'd looked at first, but that also didn't answer the question of what was going on.
He didn't want to wake the two lovebirds, though, so he settled for trying to solve the puzzle while eating a pop-tart before he had to run to class. "Someone naturally cheerful, someone they both like... can't be a character, then. Is this how they plan to ask someone out? What a madcap plan." He muttered. "At least they're not asking me out this way."
After five minutes of poking through the files, he felt like he was no closer to knowing what the hell they were doing. They were also no closer to waking up and telling him, and he still didn't want to be the guy that kicked James awake at 7:30 AM. Anesh *was*, however, much closer to being late for class.
A mystery for another day, then.
Before he left, though, he wrote James his own note, reminding him to make damn sure to record the color, tone, luminosity, and every skill he got out of the football sized orb when he cracked it. Not to mention whatever Lily finally identified it as.
He was pretty sure that they wouldn't get up to any trouble without him, but Anesh was savvy enough to know that he couldn't exactly trust James not to instantly jump on the chance to use another skorb when it was available. Not that he blamed his friend, honestly.
It was only Wednesday, and he was already looking forward to going back in.
If Anesh wasn't careful, he'd end up like James; just constantly wanting to throw himself into danger so he could laugh about it afterward. He smiled as he walked out the door. Well, maybe it wasn't too bad of a way to live. James at least had finally found the motivation to work out that he needed. And the constant upward progression of personal knowledge didn't hurt either.
There were worse fates, Anesh thought, as the door swung closed on his two friends.
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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!