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A note from argusthecat

Your recommened listening.

Stars and stones, you guys went ham on the theories with that last chapter.  Like, more than almost anything before in the story, you people just tore into that mystery.  And I'm happy to answer... none of them, I think?  Ah well, I tried.

Sunlight falls on a young woman, filtered through slatted blinds. It casts sharp shadows on her face, and fills the room with a clean and fresh feeling.

 

She's young, but no longer a child. Twenty six years old, and pushed into a role of responsibility years prior, she's been acting like an adult for a while now, no matter how much she wants to pretend otherwise. Dull black hair flows down her head; she would tell you that she keeps it a precisely shoulder length, but everyone knows that she has neither the time nor the money to spare on haircuts, and so it currently sits at just past the nape of her neck in length. It gets in the way more and more these days, and she's been keeping it in a small ponytail, emulating James a bit. No one calls her out on it, though. Partly because it looks good on her, and also partly because Alanna actually has some serious muscle on her.

 

It's a point of pride for her, and has been for a while, that she be stronger than anyone around her. Even though that cost her friends in high school, on account of her being 'the weird girl', it also gained her the attention of James and his friend Scott, the two people in their school who didn't seem to care that their friend towered over them and could probably one-arm fling them into the stratosphere. Scott had moved away, but Alanna never really got out of the habit of being in James' social circle.

 

At present, James was being drooled on by Alanna. The two of them had fallen asleep together on the couch in James' living room, having discovered firsthand the side effect of drinking too much magic coffee. Turns out, if you drank too much of it, it didn't just wear off; you hit some kind of overflow error, and went from 'wired as all hell' to 'dead asleep' in a single sip. Their hair was about the same color, making them look like one big mop with their heads tilted together. But James stood out with a skin tone a few shades lighter than Alanna. While her ancestry was a complicated and mixed bag, James was all too aware of who he was descended from. The French. And pretty much *only* the French.

 

Alanna was just starting to drift back to consciousness when the wailing of a ringtone cut through the apartment. Shocked awake, she jolted upright at about the same moment James did, the two of them knocking their heads together in a painful collision. It took a second for them to realize who it was they'd actually hit, and then they both jerked backward away from each other. Not out of embarrassment or regret, but because they had no idea how they'd fallen asleep together on the couch, and neither wanted to offend the other.

 

"What the fuck..." James grumbled, digging his phone out. Alanna just looked around, and saw the daylight pouring into the room. While James answered his phone, she checked her own and saw the time. Four fucking PM? Also two missed calls from work, and one from her mom. She was just getting a nice panic attack going when James hung up and turned to her. "Welp. My boss is glad I'm not dead, but less glad I'm not at my desk right now."

 

There was a pause while James stood up, maneuvering around the table. It took Alanna a minute to clear her throat of all the gunk that built up over the last nine solid hours of sleep, but when she did, she spoke up before James could leave the room. "What the hell happened?"

 

James just shrugged. "We fell asleep, I guess? Fucking hell, my shoulders are sore. Never fall asleep sitting up again." He rolled his neck around, trying to loosen up the muscles. "We were working on the thing, and then... I guess the coffee wore off?"

 

"Or the coffee decided it was sick of our shit." Alanna replied.

 

"Or that, yes." James nodded. "The good news is, I feel amazing. I don't think I've slept that well in years. We should probably make a note about this, but right now, I really need to use the bathroom." That comment got a vehement agreement from Alanna, and the two of them briefly made eye contact before bolting toward the bathroom door. Alanna lost their improvised race, as she had to scramble over the couch to get there, but the sting of defeat was dulled a bit by the fact that the apartment had a second bathroom in it.

 

Half an hour later, after both of them had a chance to take a quick shower, they were back at the table eating leftover pizza in companionable silence. James was checking the notes spread across the table, while Alanna was texting back to the missed calls.

 

"Fuck." Alanna broke the silence. "Fuck! Fucking fuck!" Her voice escalated to a yell, making James look up and worry a bit about his friend.

 

"What's up?" He asked.

 

She took a deep breath, before snarling out, "I just got fired over text message. Piece of shit job."

 

James hummed a sympathetic noise. "That's pretty shitty, yeah. But, um... is it a problem?"

 

"Excuse me?" Alanna glared at him, and James felt a brief moment of fear before he got his explanation in.

 

"I just mean, we make more than a week's pay on every delve, right?" James placated. "I have to keep my job, or we lose easy access. But, like, you? You don't need a job. You just need an hour of looting."

 

Alanna set her phone down and cocked her head. She opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it again. Looking up at the ceiling as if she were lost in thought. James watched her do this in silence, taking a few bites of pizza while waiting. After a while, she finally looked at him. "Why didn't I think of that?"

 

"I mean, it's prudent, for one thing. You make more money if you have multiple income sources, and I know you're taking care of your mom, so, yeah. But you've also only been in twice, and it's high pressure. Really easy to miss stuff, forget a lot of things." James shrugged. "Don't feel bad for, you know, acting like a normal person."

 

He spoke from a place of personal experience. For the last month, it hadn't been more than an hour between each time he thought about quitting. It would be so easy, he rationalized. They could bribe Frank, or just sneak in. It was no big deal!

 

But then, every day, he found himself getting up and going to work. Moving on momentum. He had a job, because humans had jobs, and he kept forgetting that he probably could just leave at this point. Or he'd make up some reason about stability or dungeon access. But all of it, really, was to cover up his own personal fear that the dungeon would just not be there one day. That he'd wake up from the dream, and see that everything had gone back to normal. And that, more than anything, was James' biggest fear; that his life would snap back to being mundane, and that if he did anything too out of the ordinary, reality might notice and take away everything cool he'd stumbled onto.

 

Alanna shook her head, accepting the explanation, but still a bit jarred from so suddenly having her financial lifeline cut off. Thinking a topic change might help her keep from going off and murdering her manager, she pointed over at the notes James was going through. "So, how far did we get? I'm kinda fuzzy on it."

 

"Well, we've got a name, at least. Also, I think this is your handwriting? What does 'fucking Bill Murray' mean?" James asked her.

 

"Oh!" Alanna said quickly. "It means we ruled out time travel."

 

James hissed air through his teeth. Part of him felt like he should have gotten the joke. "Because... because Groundhog Day, right? Right." He said to Alanna's smiling nod. "Okay, we have... a lot written here. I guess our reason is in this pile. But still. No time travel, means it's not from the future, I guess? And that's becaaaauuuussee...." He trailed off, flipping through pages. "Ah, here. She references your twenty fourth birthday coming up. Okay."

 

The two of them kept sorting through the pile of paper, trying to understand notes written under the influence of no sleep and extra caffeine. Getting a better picture of the person they were trying to grasp, and their own theories from last night. The short list of theories that Alanna didn't veto as soon as James read them out were: the audio file looked into an alternate reality, the person was actually the dungeon trying to talk to them, it was someone that had been removed from reality, or, most worrying, it was someone who was still in reality but none of them could remember her.

 

Her name was Sarah. She showed up as far back as high school for both of them, and even farther for Alanna. Though it was hard to prove, as voices changed too much to always recognize her when the conversations were from when the parties involved were eight years old. She liked ice cream and hated very little. Every time she spoke, it was bright and cheerful; the kind of person that James tended to shy away from most of the time. But from the way she spoke, she was good friends with him in the world of the conversations. She couldn't drive, but that was fine since she loved to bike and everything was close by anyway. She was employed somewhere, but they never found out the name of the place.

 

As far as James could figure, she had a massive crush on Alanna. As far as Alanna was concerned, she was into James. They agreed to disagree on this point, before it got too overly enthusiastic. Or violent.

 

Well, "agreed" was a strong word. They were sitting on opposite sides of the table, pointedly glaring at different transcripts and not talking to each other, when Anesh walked in.

 

"Hey!" He cheerfully greeted the pair. "You guys are awake! I was worried."

 

"If you were worried, why did you just leave us there?" Alanna asked with a laugh. "Wait, you... um..."

 

Anesh grinned, teeth showing through as he chuckled. "Yeah, I didn't want to disturb you two with your whole..." He was cut off as a pizza crust bounced off his head. "Dammit, James, you wanker! I'm trying to have a moment of smug amusement here!" He sighed, deflecting the second crust lobbed at him by Alanna. "Well, the moment's gone now. *Thanks*. Anyway, if you two are up, do you want to head to the hardware store with me?"

 

James was on his feet in a flash. "Yes!" He shouted. "Yes! Pick me! I'll go!"

 

"Calm down, mutt." Alanna stood up herself. "I'll come along. I'm guessing we're building something for the dungeon?"

 

It was difficult for James to contain his excitement, but he managed long enough to let Anesh answer the question. "Yeah, we're going to make a few things. Well, we're going to make a couple of weapon things, and then a bunch of explosives. James is over there having an excitement seizure because he's tipped to get to take advantage of his indirect fire skill."

 

"I've given up being surprised by these things, but that one is silly." Alanna with a wry tone as she threw on her coat and the trio headed back out the door.

 

_____

 

The local hardware store was a place called Hammer Time. Well, one of the local hardware stores. There were others, obviously; all of them massive box stores owned by national chains. None of them had puns for names. And so, naturally, they were here, having open conversations about delving because they were certain no one would guess they weren't just talking about a game or something.

 

"Did you ever use that green?" Anesh was asking Alanna while they waited for James to google the exact width of pipe they needed to make a harpoon gun.

 

She shook her head. "I've been trying to think of the right place, you know? I know that 'at home' seems like a safe bet, but if they're all good things, then I want to actually use it somewhere valuable. Somewhere it'll make a difference for a lot of people, like how you guys used yours on the hospital."

 

"Fair enough." Anesh said. "Just make sure you let me know when you do. Still..."

 

"Tracking skills, yeah yeah." Alanna waved a hand, not dismissing him, but reminding Anesh that they'd had this conversation a dozen times, and she knew the drill. It hadn't taken long at all for her to fully adopt the mindset of the delving lifestyle. "So, what do you think about this mystery person?"

 

Now it was Anesh who didn't have a good answer. "I have no idea." He said. "It seems like she's just a ghost. But every time I say 'ghost' when James is paying attention, he shoots that down." They glanced over at James, who was still engrossed in his wikipedia research. "Right, so, really? I think it's a ghost. I don't know what kind yet, but... maybe it's someone who could have been part of our lives, but wasn't?"

 

"Creepy." Alanna said.

 

"I don't know if I'd call it creepy, just weird. But yeah, so far, we haven't seen anything to suggest the dungeon can actually do time *travel*, just distortion. So maybe the file plays conversations that could have been, just a tiny diversion from reality?" He shrugged his arms out and palms up in a helpless gesture. "I don't know. I do know it's probably not a dungeon incarnation trying to talk to us, because it's not creepy *enough*."

 

Alanna let out a whoosh of breath. "No kidding. That place can get deep into fucking nightmare fuel when it wants."

 

Anesh nodded in agreement. The Office was, at times, incredibly peaceful. The strolling pace through the cubicles near the edge was a walk through a calm silence, the feeling of sitting under the LED branches of the Decision Tree was pacifying, and the creative flavors of food it came up with were thrilling, but in a way that satisfied without scaring. But in contrast to the childish glee one could feel when watching a flock of paper sheets overhead, there was so much that could horrify. Pretty much everything that had tentacles of any kind bothered Anesh. There were deathtraps with trigger conditions that kept him on edge at every moment. And then there were even more outlandish monsters; not just life forms or creatures, but real monsters. Like the molten glass bird, or the camraconda.

 

Camraconda. That was the name. Alanna was wrong; there was a pun in there.

 

"So hey, changing topics." Anesh broke the silence. "You own guns, yes?"

 

"No." Alanna flatly declared.

 

Anesh looked at her sideways. "What? What are you talking about? That was a rhetorical question, I know you own firearms." He accused her.

 

Alanna turned to glare at her friend. "I mean, 'no, not into the dungeon'. I'm with James on this one. The noise is too much of a risk. When we get in a fight, it's one thing. I think the sounds of active combat keeps most of the more easily scared creatures away. But gunfire? No way. That's gonna alert everything with a green orb within ten miles."

 

"I don't see..." Anesh trailed off as he processed her words. His pattern recognition kicked into high gear as his brain ran through the last two months of delving operations. "Oh bloody hell, the green ones are actively trying to kill us, aren't they?"

 

"Probably?" Alanna said with an expression of uncertainty and a small shrug. "I've only seen one. But you guys have told me enough that I know they're way more aggressive. Anyway, the point is, gunfire seems like a good way to attract unwanted attention. Either too many tumblefeeds, or another swarm of striders."

 

James came over, pocketing his phone and dumping a few lengths of piping into the cart. "Okay, got it. What're you guys talking about?"

 

"You really zone out when you're on your phone." Anesh said glibly.

 

Alanna spoke half over him, "Do you think we could kill a swarm with guns?"

 

"Screw you, and hell no." James said, addressing both of them in order. "Guns are the worst idea. That's why I don't bring mine. Do you seriously think we could even hit a tiny, fast moving target? Maybe Alanna could, but the rest of us? JP would shoot his own foot. Dave would shoot JP's foot. It's a terrible idea."

 

"What about a firing line of shotguns?" Anesh prompted as they moved down the aisles of tools and supplies.

 

James hummed as he thought about it. "Probably not. Because we'd need to line them up, right? And the only place there's enough open space for that is either a break room, or Fort Door. Both of those are terrible spots, because one compromises a fallback location, and the other one is in tumblefeed territory."

 

He looked over to see Alanna standing there with a raised hand. James cut his monologue short to point at her, like he was a teacher in a classroom. "I had a question about that. Why are the tumblefeeds hanging out in the break rooms? That doesn't make sense. Shouldn't there be a server rack or a breaker room that they live in?"

 

"I thought about that, but we haven't found any. Maybe it's because anywhere can have a mess of cables in an office? I dunno." James answered.

 

Personally, he was willing to just chalk it up to the mystery of the dungeon's random number generator. There was a lot of stuff that he threw into that part of his brain; the part that told him not to worry about it, because they had the dungeon, and maybe they'd figure it out sooner or later, but it wasn't a big deal. The money-vs-gift cards thing was in there. So was the fact that none of the food was ever poisoned or tainted. So was the existence of friendly creatures, like Rufus. Ganesh wasn't in there, since it was pretty clear that Rufus had made him, but if James was a little less good at putting the pieces together, he'd probably have put that tidbit in the same place.

 

Anesh and Alanna were less willing to let it go. "Maybe it's a hunter. Or a sentinel or something." Alanna offered. "The break rooms are where it's ordered to guard?"

 

"Almost makes sense." Anesh rubbed his head as James tossed a gas can into the cart. "Please be careful with that. But yeah, nah. I can't really get why the dungeon would put one of those in a break room."

 

"Are we talking about the dungeon like it's a person now?" Alanna asked. "I thought we agreed the fucker wasn't able to screw with us like that. Or does this go into different territory than the audio file?"

 

"That audio file puts us in some deep epistemological shit. Frankly, I'm not a fan." Anesh grumbled. "There's really no good outcome for it."

 

James and Alanna wanted to laugh, but it was a pretty grim thought that Anesh brought up. There wasn't a good outcome to their investigation; not really. No matter what happened, they weren't getting ahead. The best possible option was that Sarah was someone that never existed. And... that was a shame, wasn't it?

 

They kept moving in silence, Alanna and James looking off to the sides and throwing up a wall of silence around Anesh. It was a few awkward minutes of quiet before Alanna broke the silence. "So, um... while we're here, can we get the stuff to build me a shield?"

 

Grateful for the reprieve, James let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. "Yes! Yes. We can do that. There's a bunch of other stuff on the list that we should pick up while we're here. Anesh, you have anything you want?"

 

"I wanted to build a chemical ballista. We're pretty much getting that done, so, you rubes can get whatever you want. The First Delver's United petty cash account can handle the expense."

 

Alanna looked over at him. "Can I know what's in that account?" She asked. "Actually, wait. Are you actually doing accounting for this? Did you name our party? Is there an expense fund for payroll?"

 

Anesh looked over at James, who had opened his mouth as if to say something. But after a small thought, he closed, then reopened it. "I'm actually curious about those things too. Are we splitting the money the same way we do the orbs, pirate style?"

 

"I trusted you to get me out of this." Anesh frowned at James. "But yes, I'll actually set up a bookkeeping system, and... why the hell am I the one doing all the paperwork? Wait, is *this* why you brought me in, James? You bloody..."

 

"No, no!" James cut him off. "That's impossible. That would have required forethought and planning on my part. Which, I think you will agree, is not a thing that happens."

 

It was true, and Anesh couldn't deny that. So, he let it drop for now. Though in the back of his head, he did honestly consider using some of their newfound mild wealth to hire an accountant. Or a college student. No need to go overboard. He considered whether the costs of using an intern would outweigh the benefits of not paying for someone with a degree. After that, he considered whether or not he'd been in America for too long.

 

Lost in thought was how Anesh passed the rest of the time while the others picked up the materials to make Alanna her shield. He was only shaken out of his train of thought when they came up to the register to pay. Fortunately, everyone in this damned city seemed to be apathetic to everything suspicious, and the clerk had no trouble selling them the materials to make an artillery piece and the nailbombs to go with it.

 

That... was something else they should probably address. "Does anyone find it weird..." Anesh started as they loaded up the back of James' car.

 

"Yes." Both of the others chorused.

 

"But," James said, "before you ask, I don't think it's a dungeon thing. I think it's just because people aren't naturally suspicious."

 

Alanna put a hand on his shoulder. "Someone helped him make thermite." She said, simply. "That is not normal." Alanna declared. It was a pretty simple chain of thought for her; thermogenic weapons weren't something that people *helped you make* in their off time.

 

"You've never met a chemistry student, have you?" James asked.

 

_____

 

It was evening when JP and Dave walked into the apartment, the door bouncing off of a chunk of sheet metal on the floor.

 

"Hey! Watch that!" James called out from the table. The smell of sawdust and glue hung in the air, and the sound of a power drill cut through the room when Dave tried to respond.

 

The two newcomers looked around, Dave worried that he was going to step on something pointy, JP concerned about something totally different. "Hey friends," he started, "are you at all concerned with the hole in the wall you've created?" He looked down at a garbage bag full of freshly torn apart packaging near the door, then let his gaze move to the newly loaded duffle bags stashed off to the side. Interesting, and exciting.

 

"Not really!" James cheerfully called back. "Because it means the spear gun works!" He looked down at the pile of unsecured piping on the table. "Almost." He amended. It had almost worked, but it had also fallen apart on the first test. The first accidental test. "Anyway, we got a bunch of new stuff with the money we racked up last time. This is just a little extra on top of that, to really round out our capabilities."

 

"Why are you doing this inside?" JP asked in a patient, fatherly way. It was a voice that said, 'I am not angry, but I am disappointed in you.' Which was probably worse, as far as James was concerned. It was the sort of voice that JP pulled out when he was more curious than angry, and trying to inflict comical guilt on his friends. Still, it was a pretty reasonable question.

 

James answered it as best he could. "It's still kinda cold outside, and our back deck is tiny. Also, we can patch the hole later. We've got some extra cash set aside anyway, even with the extra bills this month."

 

While that was true, it did raise an interesting question that hung in the back of someone's mind. While Dave and JP came in and got comfortable, the thought sat there. While the others set their work aside and they started figuring out what they were going to eat that night, the thought festered. And after the pizza arrived, and they rearranged the living room for anime night, it finally made it out.

 

"Hey, quick tangent." Dave addressed the group. "If you guys had your bills go up, why don't you just rent out the other bedroom?"

 

The room went quiet. Every head turned to look at Dave, with James frozen, his finger over the play button for the night's selection.

 

"At the risk of sounding stupid," Alanna said, "what other bedroom? Have you seen this apartment?"

 

There was a round of agreement. The apartment was two bedrooms, Anesh's and James'. It was why they didn't have any other roommates in the first place. But Dave didn't seem to have grasped that. "I've seen the apartment, it's got... three bedrooms? Doesn't it?"

 

"Noooope." James said. "That's part of why our rent is so offensive."

 

"Then how have you been affording it for the last three years?" Dave asked, irritated. "Besides that, what about Wes?"

 

JP leaned over and stage-whispered at his friend. "Who's Wes?"

 

"He was the roommate before... Anesh..." James said, trailing off. "No, that's not right. He was a roommate though, I definitely remember him. He moved out when... um..." James racked his brain. He knew Wes had lived here. He knew that the guy had moved out at some point. He hadn't been part of their social circle, but he hadn't been an enemy or anything. But beyond that, there wasn't anything. In fact, it felt like his thoughts were running up against barbed wire when he tried to remember anything concrete. "Uh oh." He said, sharply.

 

Alanna leaned forward, her larger frame bowing the couch as she shifted her weight on it. "If we're asking dumb questions, well, your place does have two bathrooms. That's kinda weird for a two bedroom place, but I figured that was part of why the rent was high."

 

There was a thud as Dave tried to roll over the back of the couch and collided with the floor. "Hang on, I'm gonna go check. I could have sworn you have three bedrooms." He started taking long steps down their hallway.

 

"Dave, wait!" James voice betrayed actual fear as he saw his friend head out of sight. On the other side of the living room, Anesh echoed his sentiment with a barked out "Stop!" But Dave wasn't listening, intent on proving himself right. James rolled to the floor, and bolted after him, with Alanna and JP standing up and moving after them.

 

The hallway was short, because it was only a two bedroom place, but James wasn't fast enough to catch and stop Dave, who was now counting off doors. "One, two, bathroom, and..." James caught up, but was too late to stop it. "Three. Right there. Or is that a closet?"

 

"That isn't a closet." Alanna muttered. James and Anesh were frozen in place, rigid as statues. "That isn't... supposed to be there." She said, grim confusion on her face.

 

Of course it wasn't supposed to be there. Because this was a two... bedroom... apartment. Wasn't it? The thoughts fought against each other in their minds, battling for dominance. Two or three? How many bedrooms? How many roommates? Other thoughts were consumed as ammunition in the war. Why were there two bathrooms? Why was the rent going up? Why did no one remember why Wes moved out? Burned away in the fight.

 

Dave was oblivious to all of this. He hadn't really paid enough attention for any one thought to be firmly rooted in his mind. So, it wasn't that hard for him to reach out and open the door.

 

"Hey, it is a bedroom!" Dave said cheerily. Behind him, JP stepped through the others, and looked through the door, while James, Alanna and Anesh just locked up.

 

"That's... uncomfortable. Do you guys..." He turned around and saw his friends, unmoving. "Okay, I have new concerns." JP leaned over and poked James in the cheek. "Hello?"

 

_____

 

Inside James' mind, two thoughts went to war.

 

One was the truth; there were three bedrooms in his apartment, and there always had been. It was a thought that was reinforced with scraps of evidence and the genre savviness that he'd built up over a lifetime of books, anime, and the last few months of having an actual dungeon to test his trope knowledge on. The other was the truth; there were only two bedrooms in the apartment, and there always had been. It fired molten shots of doubt and anxiety, of the knowledge that he was always short on rent, and the explanation that he was misremembering timelines.

 

But James knew. Part of him knew all too well what that second truth was made of, what motivated it. And that part of him, while it may have just been a gut instinct, was enough to call for help.

 

"Secret! Help me!" His mind shouted. And with no preamble, Secret was there on the battlefield. A weaponized meme; it was a shotgun to the swords and spears of James' errant thoughts. James himself wasn't unarmed either, able to focus on the dreamlike state with clarity. He and Secret tore through the evidence and structure of the false truth, exposing its core. Exposing something that, to James' senses, felt a whole hell of a lot like Secret himself.

 

"What the fuck is that...." A resonant echo of his thoughts called across the scorched waste of his dreamscape. The answer was, it was a monster. Something he couldn't quite put into human thoughts, but was forced to occupy a human mind. It was too many shadowy limbs and too many single red burning eyes. It lashed out at him, exposed and unwilling to go back to the confines of the ruse.

 

James blocked the first strike, and his perception of self cracked. Someone that may have been James tried to deflect the second imperative aimed his way, and their conscious control of themself started to slip. The third madness would have killed him outright if it hit. There was no universe where James would ever be equipped to kill this thing.

 

Fortunately, he was just the bait. Secret was the one doing the killing. A razor sharp directive, burning white around the edges with righteous rage and indignation, cut through the invader, severing it from its connection to James' mind. And just like that, he woke up.

 

_____

 

He stumbled forward, caught by a JP wearing a concerned expression openly on his face. "Are you alright? You all just stopped moving."

 

James whipped his head around. Anesh and Alanna were still frozen in place. "Secret! Kill!" He commanded. Terse, but not cruel. The words were important to expose Secret, so he could move; the actual conversation about the course of action took place in a split second inside his head.

 

Something that looked like the angry ghost of one of the ancient leviathans that once roamed Earth's oceans burst forth from James' skull. It trailed blue and white flames as it dove forward from him, splitting into two fragments and striking into Alanna and Anesh.

 

A startled "What the fucking fuck is that?!" Came out of Dave, now watching the events in the hallway, as he slammed the door shut again. While JP could only bring himself to ask, "Why was it wearing your coat?" To James.

 

James couldn't answer. He was too busy falling forward, into comfortable blackness.

 

_____

 

He woke up some time later, which was a pleasant surprise. "Ow." Was his first word, and it alerted JP.

 

"Hey, he's coming round. I think we're okay." He called to someone else, who James couldn't see.

 

"How long?" James rasped at him.

 

JP checked his phone. "Two minute, forty eight seconds." He said. "Are you okay? What the hell was that?"

 

"Something in our heads." He said. "Not in yours, I guess? Or maybe it wasn't as bad because... reasons. Ow. Fuck." James kneaded his forehead with the palms of his hands. "I need water. Or a lobotomy. Or... fuck, where's Secret?"

 

"What secret?" Dave asked. "Did I miss something?"

 

JP slapped him on the knee from his crouched position on the hallway floor. "He means the glowing shark monster. It went back into you, that's why we're concerned, and Alanna has your gun. So please don't try anything."

 

James looked up, vision swimming for a second before focusing on the image of Alanna towering over him, 9mm pistol aimed at the floor in a comfortable grip in her hands. "Oh. Please don't shoot me?" He tried. Looking to the left, he also saw Anesh with a nerf gun. "Really please don't shoot me with *that*."

 

"James what the fuck was that." She asked, directly.

 

"Which part?" He replied. And then, "Also, can I have some water?"

 

"The part with the glowing shark, James." JP asked, polite and almost monotone. A voice like he was giving a lecture. Or an interrogation.

 

James nodded. "Okay, so, I get the suspicions, but it's actually fine. Secret is the name of the independent thought that was preventing me from talking about the dungeon. Anesh, yours got hungry and died off, which is why you got out of it. But mine had a whole other life to feed on. So, I made a deal with it. Him. He likes being a him. It's a lot like the comfortable symbiosis with Rufus, actually."

 

"And the neon reenactment of Street Sharks inside our heads?" Alanna demanded, not loosening her grip on the weapon.

 

"There was something hiding there. When Dave opened the door, it compromised it, and it tried to kill me. I saw you two frozen, and panicked. Thought it was after you, too. So, I sent Secret in, as backup." He looked around, worry starting to reach his eyes. "Guys, it's not any weirder than our average Tuesday." He said, with shaking hands. "Also, are you okay? Did it work?"

 

Anesh shrugged. "No idea. The only reason I know anything weird is going on is that Dave insists that we've been missing a bedroom for months, but I can't remember a time when we didn't have three bedrooms. But then..." He trailed off. "But then, who's room is that, right? Bollocks. This is weirder than an average Tuesday." He sighed, and set the dart gun back on his desk in his own room before returning to the hall. "Alanna, I think we're okay here."

 

The woman just grunted as she unloaded the pistol, and checked it carefully with practiced motions before replacing it in the carrying case. JP helped James up to his feet, and everyone clustered around in the hallway.

 

"So, now." James said, taking the lead. "The question is." He reached out to the doorknob, and everyone unconsciously held their breath around him. "Who was it?"

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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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