The door swung inward, and dust long left undisturbed danced in the light of sunset pouring through the window. Golden specks of matter floating in a room that looked like it hadn't been lived in for a long time, but when it had, oh, what a life it had held.
There was a small alcove for the door, with the rest of the room in that simple, apartment block ten-by-ten square past it. A loft bed took up the back left corner of the room, dominating almost half the space with the dresser at its foot. What was underneath the bed was obscured by a purple blanket with white fabric stars on it, and what was on top of the bed itself was out of sight, though James could spot the front half of a bright pink stuffed unicorn poking over the side.
The walls were lined with posters. Peering in from the door, James and Alanna started to put together a picture of the kind of eclectic person who lived here. They were the kind of nerd that would have a framed posters for The Fifth Element and Akira, right next to one for Twelve Angry Men that looked like it might have been an original theater advertisement, that was just taped to the wall. Album foldouts for Zebrahead and AC/DC coexisted alongside Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple. There were ornate metal candle sconces by the head of the bed, flanking a dreamcatcher that, to James, looked for all the world like it was a kindergarten art project.
To the right of the bed was a desk. Well, something that had started out as a desk at one point in its life. Anesh much preferred his own desk, which was mostly just a flat box, but in contrast, this thing was a bit of an amalgamation of shelves and cabinets. All painted different colors, and none of them looking manufactured, giving the desk an appearance of having been added to by hand over the years, every time the person needed a new place to hold their collection of knicknacks. The hydra of storage space reached up from the original desk, almost all the way to the ceiling, showing the weight of a life spent collecting everything from old Gameboy games to what looked like a handful of jars of sand.
And the floor was covered in loose articles of clothing, and empty soda cans.
"What. The hell. Am I supposed to take away from this?" James asked rhetorically.
Alanna pushed past him, kicking a hoodie out of the way to make a space on the floor to stand. She looked around, hands on her hips and deliberately not touching anything. "It smells fucking awful in here." She declared, still sweeping her vision over the room. "Oh. There it is." She took another careful step in, and poked at something on the desk. It was a paper plate, with a thin layer of dust on it, settled over a thicker layer of something that was once pizza. "Gross."
James took a half step in himself, pushing aside the curtain on the underside of the bed. It was a small half couch, some kind of cushy smooth material, and a small TV screen with a couple game systems hooked up to it. "This place is, I will not lie, totally rad. I wish my room was this cool. Though I'm not a fan of all the trash."
"Yeah, should we, like, clean this up?" Dave asked from the door. "I can get a garbage bag."
They looked around, everyone having essentially the same thought. They could clean it up, and probably should, if only to make sure there were no more category X health risks like the thing-that-was-once-pizza. But then, there was the flip side. This was a place that shouldn't be here. It was a third room in a two bedroom apartment. It belonged to someone they'd never met. James and Anesh could remember Wes, their old roommate; there was no gap in their memory about the kind of person he was. He was just wholly forgettable, and not anyone worth remembering. This was not the kind of room that screamed "boring" to them. There had been someone else here in the meantime, and they had done some really sweet stuff with the place. If they were going to clean it up - and Anesh was quickly falling onto team 'clean the place' as he caught the smell of it - then they should make sure not to disturb anything that could give them a clue as to what happened.
"It's a crime scene." James said. "A weird one, but still. Yeah, get the bag, but we're going to document this first, and go over everything before we throw it away."
"Even this?" Alanna asked, holding up a tupperware container with the aggressively unpleasant remnants of chicken in it.
"Even that." James replied. He looked at the fine white fuzz of spores and swallowed hard. "Okay, no, not that. Good god, what *was* that, chicken?"
Alanna looked into it. "Hard to say." She lobbed it underhand into the hall where Dave held open a bag to catch it. "Moot point now. I don't think it's gonna tell us anything. Let's get the rotten food and soda cans out of here, and then start going over stuff, yeah?"
They set about it with careful hands, partly to keep from disturbing, but also to keep from touching anything too much. The place really was a total mess, with a thin strata of debris on the floor. Food wrappers and tissues along with the clothing and books and scattered sports gear. James almost tripped over a baseball bat at one point, and spent a good minute swearing at the worn aluminum stick.
It wasn't hard to identify stuff that was clearly trash, but it also wasn't easy to pick through stuff piece by piece, making sure that wasn't a hint. They got caught up in the work, and no one really noticed when JP wandered off to take a call. The group chattered as they worked, James and Alanna talking about the posters on the wall, or Anesh asking if the food wrappers were actual food you could buy in America.
JP came back to the group while they were about halfway through cleaning up, shoving his phone back in his pocket. "Okay, you guys have fun. I need to head out. Let me know if you find anything, okay? Also, Dave, you're my ride, so I need you to head out as well."
"Dammit, man, we had a rhythm going here." Alanna said, stacking a bunch of opened mail on the desk. "Specifically, a rhythm where I had someone else to sort out the recycling."
"Yeesh. Well, you've got maybe five bucks in cans there." JP responded with a grimace, looking at the two bags in the hallway, already stuffed with cans and bottles.
James wiped the grime of dust and sweat off his forehead. "Also we've been using Dave to run down the garbage. It's really helpful to have someone else do the heavy lifting. But yeah, you guys go. Everything alright?"
"I just need to take care a family thing. No big deal." JP gave an easy shrug. "Anyway. I leave this in your hands, as you three are the masters of the ransack already." He made a small bow, and headed down the hall toward the door. Dave gave a shrug and a quick round of goodbyes before leaving the garbage bag inside the door and following.
Anesh shook his head. "Okay, well. It's no big deal, we are almost done here, yeah? No one's found *anything* weird here?" Alanna and James both froze, turning to look at him. Alanna was currently going through that sheaf of opened mail they'd gathered from the floor and the nooks and crannies around the desk, while James had, for convenience, finished folding up all the clothing that had been lying around.
James shot a blank stare toward his friend. "Are you joking? Man, literally everything about this is weird be definition."
"I found a bag of sex toys, does that count?" Alanna asked with an equally straight face.
"Ew." James and Anesh said together. James continued, "Also, no, it doesn't count. That's a reasonable thing to have. But, given how much of a mess this place is, maybe don't touch them." He sighed. It was getting kind of late, and the crisp night air had filtered in through the open window of the room enough to make taking a deep breath a tolerable idea. "Honestly, I was hoping that we'd find something more overtly helpful. It kind of annoys me that none of these posters on the walls are obvious dungeon motivation posters."
Anesh stood up from his spot on the floor. "Okay, I'm gonna get a drink. Also... I have a concern based on that, James."
"Based on your drinking habits?" James snarked.
"Based on the dungeon thing, you ghoul." Anesh scowled. "So, we have an actual, literal, dungeon on our hands, yes?"
Alanna threw an envelope folded badly into a paper airplane at him. "Stop recapping. We know."
"Okay, well," Anesh carried on, "all I want you two to consider," he said as he stepped out into the hallway, "is that we may need to look into the fact that literal magic is real, and there's more to the world than the dungeon." He shrugged, shaking dust off himself from the doorway. "Think on that." Were his final words before he walked off.
James and Alanna shared a look of concern, an exaggerated frown on James' face. They had not thought of that.
Both of them started to talk at once, and then cut themselves and each other off. James motioned for Alanna to go ahead, and she opened with, "Ten bucks says your roommate was a witch, and this is some kind of curse backfiring."
"Fuck, I was going to say that one." James said. "Okay, ten bucks says that she got abducted by aliens."
Alanna nodded vigorously. "Oh! I'll put another ten on her being a mythological creature in disguise, returning to her people!"
With a snap of his fingers, James countered with, "My money is on 'literally just a vampire' for this one!"
"Teleportation spell misfire!"
"Shadowy government agency!"
"Anything that's the plot to an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer!"
"Okay, that's not at all..."
Anesh stepped in before James could finish whining at Alanna's blanket coverage of pop culture. Opening a soda with a *hiss*, he asked pointedly, "Can I bet money that it's the person you've been trying to research who shows up on the conversation mp3?"
"Anesh, stop ruining our fun." Alanna griped.
"Yeah," James said, "besides, just because we know it's her doesn't mean that it couldn't have been something else as well, right?"
Swallowing a sip of his drink, Anesh clicked his tongue and aimed a question at James. "Wait, you know it's her?"
It was with a sheepish look on his face that James answered "Oh, yeah. We read the name on the mail. Sorry! I guess you were out of the room when we were doing it." James stood up himself from the desk, stretching muscles stiff from sitting on the floor folding laundry for an hour. "But man, come on. You just said it. We've tunnel visioned in on the dungeon, really hard, and that's maybe a huge problem. Like, think about it. The dungeon... isn't normal?"
Alanna snorted loudly behind him, while Anesh just gave him a short, deadpan, "Really."
"Really!" James said. "I'm serious here! It's not something that's supposed to be part of the world!" He took a breath, trying to keep his anxiety under control. "Look, I'm pretty genre savvy. But this is a ridiculous thing, right? It's not normal, it's not supposed to exist. The real world doesn't work this way. But it's here. So, like Anesh said," he nodded at his roommate, "if this is real, what else might be?"
"Vampires." Alanna answered without hesitation.
James nodded, pointing at her. "Exactly, vampires!" He paced around the cleared floor a bit, waving his hands as he talked. "Wizards? Maybe! Dragons? Alanna, we could get a pet dragon."
Alanna's face lit up like it was Christmas Eve. "Really?" She said, forgetting her stoic and deadpan attitude for a second.
"Probably not!" James said. "We'd probably get eaten!" He told Alanna, quickly smashing her hopes and dreams, and dropping her expression back into a glum frown aimed his direction. "But, like, this just can't be the only weird thing in the world."
There was a pause as Anesh took a minute to look around the room. "I want to agree with you, James. Especially since you're agreeing with me, and it makes me feel like a clever lad."
"Well, that," James replied, "but also because we didn't find a shred of evidence that this person... Sarah, I need to call them by their name... was ever once exposed to the dungeon."
Alanna chimed in. "Yeah, no otherworldly candy wrappers. No conspicuous weaponry lying around. We went through all the paperwork in their desk, and just learned that she went paperless with most of her stuff. A few bills, voters pamphlets, credit card offers, nothing that looks like what we do. She's got that bulletin board on the wall, but..."
"Sorry, the what?" Anesh asked.
"Um... cork board? That thing." Alanna pointed at the brown board with dozens of small mementos pinned to it. Movie tickets and postcards, mostly. "The kind of thing that someone like you would use to make one of those creepy string-webs of information that looks like a conspiracy theorist gone mad?"
Anesh let out a small 'ah', looking over the board. "Right, okay. But this one is just personal stuff." He stepped up to it, moving around a pyramid of stuffed animals that James had stacked up, and looked over the board. "Plane tickets, though. Actually, a big chunk here from a vacation. Maybe we can look into this, see if they... she... was visiting anyone. Might give us a lead." He reached up to pull several of the pins out and start taking things off the board. "I'll look into this. It'll give me a break while you guys keep tossing the room."
He walked out with the material, balancing the files and his soda as he propped the door open. "Have fun!" James called after him, before shaking his head and turning back to Alanna. "I really want it to be the dungeon, you know?" He said.
"Why?" She asked. She leaned back in her commandeered desk chair, and James propped himself against the loft bed frame. The two of them were tired, tired of cleaning, tired of searching, and tired of not spending their day off relaxing.
"Because the dungeon is ours. It's special, it matters." James said. "I also just kinda have a feeling about it. Like, I know we're sorta-not-kidding, but I really don't actually believe in vampires. But I do believe in tumblefeeds and skill orbs, and I'm worried." He shrugged slightly, trying to find a way to express how he felt to her.
It was sort of simple, but also sort of not. He could see the path that had been taken to get here, so very clearly. The dungeon had claimed someone, and that someone had been someone he'd known. It was simple, but also not. It didn't answer any questions, it just reinforced what he already suspected. Though he didn't have any proof, he was, in his gut, certain that Sarah had been swallowed up by the same place he'd been casually farming for history classes and martial arts skills.
Maybe it was strange to believe that the dungeon was the only supernatural thing in the world. But, despite all he'd seen, despite the creatures and the orbs and the life form in his head that was becoming a friend, James just couldn't imagine living in a world with werewolves. He wasn't ashamed to admit that, back in high school, he'd legitimately tried to find a way to become a wizard, and run up short. And he was sure enough that he wasn't the only one that he imagined, on a long enough timeline, that someone would have stumbled across an actual spell and posted it on the internet.
So, he was left with this thought that the dungeon was special. And that it was his. His and his groups. Perhaps that was a bit arrogant, or self-centered, but this whole empty room was just a bit too close to home, literally, for him to think anything else.
Alanna got it, though. She and James had stayed up for hours, listening to hundreds of conversations, looking for ones with a person they couldn't remember. And after hearing her own voice, over and over, talking to someone she'd never met, it started to hit her that this was someone she *did* know now, in a weird way. It was someone she wanted to be friend with, wanted more of in her life.
And they were gone. Not that they didn't exist, but that they'd been taken away. And, there was one very obvious culprit. It lived in the back stairwell of James' office building, and it had a giant fucking bullseye drawn on it.
"I get it." She told him, with a small and difficult smile. Seeing the twisted and uncomforted, but understanding, look on her face, James bowed his head to look at the floor. The comfort of having someone else who got what he meant was huge to him, and Alanna felt about the same way.
They sat that way in companionable silence for a little while, mostly just giving James a chance to compose himself. After a few minutes of quiet, he cleared his throat awkwardly, and said, "I feel like going on a walk. Do you want to come along? Maybe go down to that coffee place that's open until 2AM?"
"Yeah, sounds good." Alanna agreed instantly. Eager to get out for a bit and enjoy the cool night air.
James pushed himself up from his leaning position, shuffling his socked feet across the clean carpet. "Cool. Let me just grab my phone. You want to go see if Anesh is interested?"
She made an assenting grunt, and hauled herself up, while James ducked back across the hall into his own room. Throwing himself across the comfortable expanse of his bed, he extended his arms in an exaggerated fashion to reach out for his phone. Well, one for his phone, the other one just to give Lily some scritches. The iLipede had been doing good work scanning the massive orb that he and Anesh had brought back what felt like a lifetime ago, but she'd been stuck at 99% for a while. James wasn't too worried - he knew sometimes that last percent took longer than it should - but he was impatient. Didn't want to let Lily see it though.
Grabbing his actual, non-bug-shaped phone, he checked it really quick before standing up. His normal wallpaper image was covered by the 'missed call' notification. "Ah, crap." He announced as he walked out into the pleasant, soft lighting of his living room. "I missed a call from my mom when we were cleaning."
"Oof. Having met your mother, you have my condolences." Anesh told him. He was throwing a coat on, apparently planning to come along with them. Alanna was nowhere in sight, and James assumed she was already outside.
"Yeah, it's a whole *thing*. When was this, anyway?" He opened up his call log. "Hm. Three hours, that's... huh." James trailed off, looking at his phone with a concerned expression, scrolling through the call log.
Anesh looked at him from by the door. "Huh what? Also, you coming?"
"Yeah, yeah. I just... have more missed calls than I thought?" He poked at his phone. "These are all from the same number. How did I never notice these before?"
A contemplative noise from Anesh. "When were they?"
"Over the last two months." James responded. "And some of them aren't missed! What the fuck?"
"Okay, that's easy. It was just something you couldn't think about, like the room. Now you got your pokemon to kill off the hostile memes, and you can see it again. Easy."
"That's not easy." James snarled. "That's insane. Hang on, I'm going to call this person back."
"It's pretty late, are you sure you should call now?" Anesh asked.
James had already dialed. Holding the phone up, he flopped back against the couch and tapped his foot on the end of it. "Don't worry, I'll just leave a message. Also, stop calling Secret a po..."
The ringing cut out, and the call went to voicemail. "This is detective Madden." The voice on the other end said. It was a deep voice, the kind of thick growl that came from a lifetime of smoking, or being punched in the throat. "If you have information relative to a case, or are returning a call, leave a message. If this is an emergency, hang up and call dispatch." There was a quick beep tone to let James know that he was supposed to say something.
"Detective. Um. Hi. My name is James Lyle?" He stuttered out, not prepared for this. "This might be weird, but I don't know if we've spoken before. I found a lot of missed calls from this number on my phone, and I was hoping to figure out who this was. Um... if you still need to talk, I'm available most evenings, I guess? Thanks. Bye." He hung up.
Anesh grinned at him from the door. "Why did you thank him? Is that an American thing on voicemail?"
With a snort and an extension of his middle finger, James pointedly refused to answer his friend. Ignoring the comment, he let out a small hum before saying, "It is still kind of weird that a detective was calling me. It didn't say if he was with the police, or a private investigator, but, well..."
"Probably looking into Sarah, right?" Anesh asked.
"Maybe." James replied. "It just feels weird." He said as he got his shoes and coat on. "He can't be police, right? I mean, if he was actually investigating a missing person, and I missed eight calls, someone would check on that, right?"
Anesh nodded. "I think that's how the police work. Anyway, let's not keep Alanna waiting." James grumbled, but agreed. He needed a break from all of this anyway. A nice walk under the stars and enough caffeine to incapacitate a shark. It would be great to just enjoy some time without panicking about what the dungeon would throw at them next, or how it seemed like it wasn't contained to its own little back stairwell. Those were problems for future-James. Present-James was going to go get a mocha.
"Alright." He told Anesh with a steady breath and a smile. "Let's go get some coffee." Anesh returned the smile, genuine and happy, and reached out to open the door to the cool night air and a clear, starry sky.
Standing in the doorway was a human-shaped figure, wearing a white button-up shirt and black slacks. It had only a blank expanse where its face should be; the texture of cardboard presented where a person should have eyes and a mouth.
"Ja..!" Was as far as Anesh got before it backhanded him into the kitchen counter.
The stuffed shirt stepped over the threshold of the door, into their apartment. James stood shock still, frozen in fear. "Secret..." He whispered to himself. "Is this a nightmare too?"
There was no response from inside his mind. The hollow employee stepped closer, deliberately and in a strange jaunted walk that still made it look like it was limping, or not fully in control of its legs. "Commmm-panny proPERty must **not** be removed froM the OFFice." It spoke in an alien voice, the words formed of scrap paper and pencil shavings. They washed across James, and stole away his willpower. He couldn't move, he couldn't *react*.
This wasn't supposed to be happening. This *couldn't* be happening. The dungeon was supposed to be contained, it wasn't supposed to come out!
As the thing stepped closer, James found his mind racing, but his survival instincts kicking into high gear. Forget about what it was "supposed" to do. It wasn't fucking *allowed* to do this. His eyes narrowed, his heart beat faster, but it wasn't out of control. This thing came into his home, hurt Anesh - again - and now it was moving in for him? No.
This bullshit would not do.
James slid his foot forward into a combat stance, just as the thing strode closer and reached out a hand, twisted into a grim claw, for James' throat. His martial arts 'training' kicked in, and he slapped the arm away with a sharp blow from the blade of his hand. The employee frowned, before reaching out again, and James again slapped it away.
It kept moving forward, forcing him to shuffle back to keep a small distance between them. James was quickly running out of living room space, and back into the hallway of their apartment. The empty man was moving faster and faster, ramping up the speed and frequency of its attempts to seize him; but James was keeping up. For every hand it tried to snake toward his throat, he had a block, a counterstrike, and a slight shifting of his feet to keep himself out of threat range.
It was almost enough to make James grin. But he couldn't. Because while he was hitting it, over and over, and he seemed to finally have the physical ability to stand up to its insane speed and strength, as long as he fought smart, James knew a painful truth. While he could have worn it down fighting this way, he would have to do it perfectly, and it would take an hour, maybe more, to injure it enough to bring it to rest. And James, well...
He was running out of hallway.
Another step, another block. He deflected its hand, and it struck the corner of the hallway entrance. The hand closed and a fist came away with a chunk of drywall in it, making James gulp. The blank face of the thing advancing on him was wrinkled, as if in an eyeless scowl; he was making it angry.
"InDUSTrialll esssspionage is A punishAble *Off*ense!" It screamed at him.
Behind it, James saw Anesh staggering to his feet, clutching at his arm. And at the door, left hanging open, Alanna appeared, gasping for breath and covered in dirt. Backup was coming, help was on the way, but it was too late. He lashed out in a short kick, connecting with what should have been a knee, and buying himself a second. Another smashing counterblock that would have left a human opponent gasping in pain, but here, just kept James from losing the structural integrity of his bones. And then, it happened.
James had run out of hall.
He almost pressed his back against the wall at the end of the hallway, but then, a small moment of hope opened up to him. The door to his bedroom was closed, and would take precious time to get into; but the door to "Sarah's" room was left hanging open. Five more seconds was all he needed to let his friends get to him, and help him kill this fucker.
He pivoted, ducked a grab, and tried to jerk backward while landing a hard punch on the abdomen of the monster in front of him. But then, it did something unexpected. It kicked him, right in the stomach. Hard.
James had been in a few fights when he was a kid. He'd been bullied, he'd briefly lived with an abusive uncle, and he'd once fallen off his bike on the side of a hill. But he had never once felt a singular hit as hard as the one that struck him now. He felt like his whole body caved in around it, as he was lifted off the ground and flung backward, his feet catching on the desk chair and sending him toppling to the ground against the wall.
As the ultimate insult to injury, the bulletin board was knocked loose from its moorings, and landed on his head.
But the hollow one didn't stop. It just strode in, pulling a purple orb out of its pocket and holding it up to 'eye' level, as if aiming it at James. "NO MORE STOLEN SECRETS." It wailed.
James tried to lash out with a foot, but couldn't untangle himself from the chair legs. Tried to roll, but couldn't find the energy to move. Tried to scream, but couldn't even find the air in his lungs to do more than cough.
Then the gunfire started.
A cracking staccato echoed through the apartment, through James' ears, and through the air for the surrounding four blocks. Over and over the noise barked out, and each time, a plume of dust and confetti sprayed out over James to accompany the new hole in the un-man. James tried to count shots, but lost track after five as his vision swam and his ears burned. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the noise came to an end, when the paper pusher toppled forward onto its face, sprawled out over the floor.
Alanna stepped into the room, James' pistol held in her bleeding hands. She said something as she walked in, and James cocked his head at her, trying to shrug or tap at his still ringing ears.
"DO YOU HAVE ANY DOWNSTAIRS NEIGHBORS." Alanna shouted at him. Not angrily, just loudly, to make sure that the words were clear and heard.
James shook his head.
She nodded, and planted a foot on the shoulder blades of the human shaped nightmare on the floor. Then she took aim, and emptied the rest of the magazine into its head.
After James' pulled himself into a sitting position, and made sure he wasn't going to vomit up the remains of his internal organs, he tried to ask Alanna what happened.
"Fucker went right through me." She said. "I didn't even realize I wasn't being mugged, except I got thrown into the fucking stupid fucking blackberry bushes outside your fucking apartment." She was shaking as she talked. Adrenaline receding and fear coming back. "Anesh is okay. He cut his arm open on the countertop. That thing made a beeline for you, which is the only reason that we're alive."
James tried to nod, and found that his neck felt like one giant bruise. "It makes sense." He croaked out, still not really able to hear his own voice properly. "It said... it said no more... I think it was specifically trying to kill Secret." He coughed, and tasted the coppery tang of blood in his mouth. "Thank you." He said. "I don't think it planned on stopping with him."
Alanna carefully unloaded the magazine of the pistol, set both it and the gun down on the desk with trembling hands, and then sat down gently on the couch under the loft bed. She leaned forward, holding her head in her hands. James reached out with his arm, trying to pat her knee and reassure her that everything was okay.
"You saved my life." He said. "You saved Anesh, too. Thank you." It was a quiet, true thing, and he meant it more than he ever had anything in his life.
"I've never shot a person before." Alanna said in a small voice. "I don't like it."
Anesh walked into the room, a bloody bandage on his arm. "Technically you still haven't." He rolled the paper man over to show off the blank face that Alanna hadn't seen. "Not human. No blood either." It took a while for this to sink into her mind, but James had another question while Alanna processed the information.
"Hey. What the hell?" He pointed at what was hidden under the corpse. It was an orb. But not, as with the other one, a massive yellow orb. This one was bright, neon green. It was the size of a melon, and its glow was bright enough to cast its color onto the walls. "Why'd it change color settings?" James asked the group.
"I'll do you one better." Anesh asked, reaching down onto the floor next to James. "What do you make of this?" He said, pulling up the fallen cork board. A half dozen pins had fallen out of the front when it fell, showering James in a flurry of airplane tickets and birthday cards. But that wasn't what Anesh was showing them. On the *back* of the board, where they hadn't bothered to look, was a separate tableau of information.
"I've seen that map before." Alanna said, her voice regaining strength. "Where have I... wait, fuck. I've *drawn* that map before."
Anesh looked down at the two grimly. "Okay, no gods or wizards. Just one dungeon, that took our roommate, and is pissed that we know about it."
"Looks that way." James said, meeting Anesh's eyes, before sweeping his gaze over to look at Alanna.
Anesh examined the map a bit. "It actually looks similar to ours. They use a different 'north', but looks like they got to the bathrooms too. That's where the map ends, though."
There was a minute while the three of them sat there in silence. It was a quiet, contemplative moment, with all of them wondering where they went from here. James was trying to decide if he should take time off so he and Anesh could move somewhere that the dungeon didn't know. Anesh was trying to decide if he even wanted to keep delving if this was going to be their average Wednesday night. And Alanna, well.
"Who gets the orbs?" Alanna asked, breaking the spell of the glum mood. James and Anesh pointed at her in unison, smiling. "What? No, I can't take both of them."
"Fucking take the blighters." Anesh said. "I think you earned it." To which James nodded his agreement.
James reached up his arm, handing her the purple that had rolled into his leg when the paperboy fell forward. "Look. Here's the thing." He said. "I don't know if there are rules to this little game we're playing with the dungeon. But it doesn't get to do this." Alanna reached out a still slightly shaking hand to grasp at the orb. "It doesn't get to come to our home." James said, voice steadying and intensifying. "It doesn't get to take our roommate, whether they were the one we liked or not." He raised his voice a bit more. "I'm pretty fucking pissed at it right now." He pushed off the ground, grunting a bit as what felt like a cracked rib got jolted a bit. "So take the orb." He told Alanna. "And this week, when we go in again, and we *will* go in again, we take everything from it. We dredge for every scrap of useful ability we can. And we use it to kick the shit out of that place. We're going to the damn bathroom, as stupid as that sounds now that I say it out loud, and we're going to see what's past it. And, if there's anyone human left in there, we're going to drag them out and kill *anything* that gets in our way."
Alanna felt a swelling in her chest as James spoke, and as he finished, he made eye contact with her and closed his hand around hers. She gave a single nod, and focused on the orb in her hand, bursting it in a flash of purple dust.
[Shell Upgraded : Surface Fracture-Energy Value, +2,250 Newtons]
"I'm using the green on the elementary school down the road." She said. "We can stop by on the way to get coffee. And then, yeah. Let's fuck that place up."
Anesh cleared his throat. "You know we have to wait until next week, right? Unless we want to crawl through the vents. Also, are you going to ask Dave and JP about this?" He asked James. What he meant was, 'are you going to ask *me* about this.
James got it, though. He saw the worry and the fear in Anesh's face. "Yeah, I'll ask them. And, are you okay with this? I know it's not what I invited you into this nonsense for. But... I don't... No, I mean, no excuses. If you're not in, I won't push it." James felt like he wasn't expressing himself clearly, but he knew that above all else, he wasn't going to try to force his best friend into a life-or-death fight.
And, with a small nod, Anesh understood and agreed. "I just wanted you to ask, that's all." He told his friend.
"Great." James sighed. "Now, *now* can we go get coffee? And maybe some medical attention. Someone check that thing for blues while I go lay on the couch and moan in pain."
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!