"Okay, where's Anesh?" James asked as the group sat around the desk that they were now using as their improvised group meeting table.
It was pretty interesting to James that the notion of a 'kitchen table' seemed to show up, no matter where their group was. Wherever they went, they found themselves a table to sit around so that they had a place to sit and talk as a group. And, in this case, pile loot on.
The whole thing made James feel almost like a pirate captain, right down to the small cut on his right cheekbone. Here he was, relaxing with other members of his crew, weapons stacked on the table or against the walls of their makeshift fort, and a bowl of reality-warping orbs in the middle of the table surrounded by cash and chocolate. It was practically enough to make him forget that he had to go into his normal job tomorrow.
"Anesh is still sleeping." Dave said, leaning over the table and casually stacking piles of bills.
Alanna gave out a long and exhausted sigh as she dropped down onto her chair, dropping the last piece of her shell armor onto the floor next to her. "Fucking hell, that stuff is hot. My skin feels like it's turned into sweat." She arched her arms over her head, saying, "I'm taking the longest shower when I get back."
Next to her, James scrunched up his face. "Hurgh. You *smell* like you turned into sweat too."
"Oh, like you're any better. You smell like blood and fear." Alanna retorted, sticking out her tongue.
"What does... fear..." JP started to ask, then he brought his hand up to his mouth in thought, and corrected himself. "No, no, nevermind. I think I can figure it out."
James reached out and started giving Rufus some pets where the strider was curled up with his legs under him on the table. "Okay, so, Alanna's distressing sense of smell and JP's overactive imagination aside, why is Anesh still sleeping?"
"Because he's tired?" Dave asked sarcastically, looking up from where he was half-laid across the desktop. Everyone just kind of paused for a beat and turned to look at Dave, before slowly turning away again.
"Okay, that aside," James said, "someone go wake him up. Actually, Dave! I nominate you!" Dave groaned, but did stand up and head over to the side 'room' that they'd built in Fort Door to house the cots.
JP poked through the bowl of orbs, newly refilled with what they'd brought back. "So, I was thinking. It was mentioned to me that you can... was it 'eat' the yellow ones?" James and Alanna traded a considering look before shrugging. "Okay, eat or absorb or something the yellow ones. So, we had a few here. Why didn't Anesh just take one of those instead of sleeping?"
"I... hm." James stalled his line of thought. "That's a good question. I mean, it burns them up pretty fast. Maybe he just didn't want to waste one? Also, what if it ran out during a fight? That would be... well, we don't know what it would look like, I guess. He might just fall over."
Alanna shifted in her chair. "I bet he just didn't think of it."
"Ooh, oh! I bet he has a complaint about not wanting to throw off his sleep schedule!" James excitedly threw back.
Opening her mouth to respond, Alanna stopped and thought for a second, tapping her finger on the table. "You know what? Okay. I bet you one share of loot."
"What, really?" James asked.
"Okay, yeah. Yeah! You're on." He reached his arm across himself to shake her hand firmly. "I'm gonna regret this!" James said cheerfully.
Over the course of the week, JP had apparently had a long conversation with Anesh about the nature of their loot sharing system. The core of it was solid, and they weren't planning to change that. But an argument at game night had brought up the case of trading away shares, and how they broke up some of the items on offer. Was it 'fair', really, to have a single small yellow orb be on the table next to a giant green? Or next to stacks of cash? And how did they split up the cash in the first place?
The answers were pretty straightforward, really. The 'petty cash' account took half the money they got. The rest got split into one pile per person. The orbs all stood alone, so did the magic items. If someone wanted to trade that big green to someone else for a dozen small yellows, that was totally their choice. Really, as with the arrangement in the group itself, the unifying principle was less a matter of contract law, and more a matter of *just don't be a dick*.
And so far, it was working out for them. Even Dave, James would grudgingly admit. Dave wasn't always the most pleasant person to be around; he often came across as annoying or overbearing even when he wasn't saying anything stupid or rude. But he wasn't stupid, and he was taking to the dungeon pretty well now that he had some decent direction and a bit of practice.
Anesh chose that moment to stumble out, still blinking sleep out of his eyes, and trying to hit Dave who was dodging ahead of him. Ganesh buzzed around both of them, doing lazy loops that seemed a little unstable, and James wondered if the drone had been asleep too. The mental image of his friend cuddled up with the little chitinous critter was pretty adorable.
"Anesh!" Alanna called over, causing him to stop trying to strangle Dave for the crime of waking him up. "Why did you take a nap and not just absorb a yellow? This is important."
"Because James already ruined my sleep patter..." He didn't even get to finish the sentence before he was interrupted.
"Yes!" James cut him off, pumping a fist in the air. "I knew it!"
Alanna punched the table in mock anger. "Now see here young man!" She said to Anesh in her best 'stern librarian' voice. "I didn't come all this way to lose bets on you."
"Why are you betting on me?" Anesh said, taking his own seat as he cleared the dust from his eyes. Ganesh took the opportunity of a stable platform to land on his shoulder, and settled down for a nap of his own, while Dave took a seat on the other side of the desk; out of range of any retaliation from Anesh. "Wait, no, *what* are you betting on me?"
"Loot shares." JP smoothly filled him in with a grin. "So, that puts James at three, Anesh at two, and the rest of us at one? Does that sound right?"
"I've actually been wondering. How do we do this with this much stuff?" Dave asked. The question was kind of open, but mostly aimed at JP or Anesh, since they were the ones who were 'running' the system of divvying up the spoils.
JP leaned back. "We pick who picks first randomly," he started, setting a pair of dice from his pocket on the table, "then we go around in order, picking something off the table. Each pick costs a share. When we *all* run out of shares, we start over."
"Isn't this kind of uneven?" James slowly spoke with concern.
"Well, yes." JP admitted. "But think about it; we can either live as Bill and Ted commanded, and be excellent to each other, or we can spend half our time in here sorting out who 'deserves' what, and generally feel resentful when the system fails us." He looked over at James, steepling his fingers in front of him. "Tell me, friend, how do you feel about overly complex management systems?"
There was a series of 'oooh no's as everyone, James included, made gestures of dissent. "Okay, point taken. I'm fine with the imbalance if everyone else is." Nods, to that one. "Okay, so, any other business before we do this?"
"Why's there a briefcase on the table?" Anesh asked.
"We can't figure out how to open it, and I wanted something from that stupid cubicle where I couldn't figure out the password. I think 'briefcase that can't take damage' is a pretty fair reward." James told him.
Anesh looked over the briefcase and it's attached note. "Did you consider trying R-4401 as the password?" He asked.
"...Well fuck." James said. Everyone burst out laughing at that, startling Rufus up to a ready position before he realized there wasn't a threat and settled back down. "I mean, obviously not. Though I'll think of it next time. Anyway! Loot! Come on, let's go!"
"Why are you in such a hurry, man?" Dave asked with an amused huff of breath.
James glared at his teammate. "Because I have to pee, you jackass! And the bathrooms are two miles away, and we lost the path back to them! So loot! Now! Go!"
JP casually rolled the dice, cutting off the chatter. "Eight." He said in an even tone, as if his friends weren't fighting across his seat.
One by one, they rolled. And then, one by one, they started picking things.
"Stack of cash!" Alanna opened with.
"Wow, really? Not an orb?" James asked in response.
"Really. JP, go!" She commanded.
JP snapped up one of the larger yellow orbs, and passed to Dave. Dave, on his turn, started to reach for the larger of the blues on the table, but Anesh held up a hand. "Hey, offer for you. I'll give you two shares for that blue."
"That's... weird. But okay, sure." Dave handed him the orb, unsure if something weird was going on, and passed to Anesh.
Anesh just shrugged. "I'm out of shares for this round. On to you, James."
"Okay, I take the green then." He said.
The loot started to be separated out as each of them took their choices into their own private pile. The orange went to Alanna, and the other blue disappeared too, followed shortly by the purples, then the money and yellows started to go, and eventually, they were just grabbing bundles of candy or one of the couple of USB drive with amusingly mundane files on them. The briefcase ended up going to Alanna, and the mysterious printer ink cartridge went to Dave, who muttered about spoils of war. JP, in consolation, grabbed a box full of 8GB RAM sticks, which soothed his loss a bit.
"So, is that everything?" James asked. "We can crack them now or later, I don't care, but I need to get going right now either way, and Dave is so bored he's been building some kind of monster out of tape and binder clips."
"And tape!" Dave informed him. He'd sold away almost all his shares for the last purple, promptly traded it away for more yellows, and had been just chilling while the rest of them cut the pile into pieces.
Anesh waved James off. "Go, do your thing. I mean, we'll literally catch up to you in no time, since once the door closes, it'll be a couple seconds for you, and we can wrap up here."
"Good point. See you in a bit. Goodnight Rufus!" James said, standing up, shoving his winnings into his backpack, and heading out in a hurried walk. The dungeon was great, he loved it, but after six hours of hiking, fighting, discussing, and exploring, and staying hydrated through all of it, he felt like his options were find a bathroom, or literally pop. And he wanted to avoid that one.
Anesh waved to him as the door swung shut behind him. Then he turned back to the table. "So, anyone have anything else we need to go over? Do you guys have an after-action report to file?" He asked JP and Alanna.
"Do we do those now?" Alanna asked with mild scorn. Bureaucracy was never her favorite thing, and Anesh was proposing something dangerously close to actual work.
Fortunately, JP was there to sum it up efficiently. "We staked out the break room for a while, then when nothing showed up, James and I started looting the cupboards. Found a folded space nest of striders, then a tumblefeed engaged. Things you might be interested in; the striders were actively using a magic item, and the tumblefeed was eating the orbs from the striders. Alanna? Anything about the fight?"
This was more where she was able to talk confidently. "Oh, tumbles was less trying to roll us over, and more trying to grapple. It was also a lot smaller, but a lot springier. We should consider that these things actually 'age' in some way." She made air quotes as she said it. "James had to use some of our thermite on it. Oh, I also shot a couple things, normally," it took Anesh a second to understand she meant 'with a real gun' and that she hadn't fireballed them, "and that didn't attract a swarm." She took a deep breath as she ended her explanation. "I think... that's all?"
"Oh, all the hot chocolate packets are real." JP said.
Alanna and Anesh both turned to look at him with puzzled faces. "Why..."
"I mean, they're real. They're not... this." JP held up a candy bar. "They are a product in our world. Look." Sure enough, the hot chocolate packets were Swiss Mix. Actual food, with branding that didn't look like a creepy off-color fever dream.
"Concerning. Everyone make a note, we'll have to look into this when we aren't looking into literally every other problem." Anesh leaned into the palms of his hands as he rested his elbows on the desk. "We have so many problems..." He groaned.
"Okay, what else, while we're here?" JP asked, trying to push Anesh out of his complaining.
"Well." Anesh said, sitting up. "I wanted to try something, if you guys are interested in giving input."
"Always." "Yup." from Alanna and JP, and a "Eh." from Dave came back to Anesh.
"Okay, great. So, I want to try making a piece of xenotech." Anesh told them. Alanna placed her palm on the table and leaned toward him, opening her mouth, and Anesh rolled his eyes. "Fine, a magic item. Happy, you wanker?"
"Super. Hand me a spear and tell me when this becomes a bad idea." Anesh said, holding up the blue orb he'd 'bought' from Dave.
Alanna looked over at JP, who just shrugged. He knew well enough that he didn't have a damn clue what this would do. Alanna didn't either, but that didn't stop her saying "This seems like a bad idea, but I can't think of a reason to stop you? Why does it feel like a bad idea?"
Anesh set the polished black wood boar spear on the table, and held the blue orb above it. "Do you think it matters where I try to put it?"
"Probably. Go for the blade, I guess?" Alanna pulled her feet up and rolled her chair away from where the blade of the spear was facing. "Just wait for me to get out of the way when it starts shooting ice beams or some bullshit."
He leaned forward, pushing down on the orb. It didn't crack in his hands, but it also didn't interact with the spear either. "Hm." Anesh muttered to himself. He was pretty sure that he was missing something, but he didn't know what. He tried focusing on the idea of improving the weapon, then when that didn't work, just focusing on the spear 'as a weapon'.
And when *that* didn't do anything, he just glared at it.
"I'll deal with this later. Who wants to get to the fun part of the night and actually use the orbs?" He said.
Alanna gave out a gleeful laugh, and then instantly felt bad about it. "Sorry, sorry! I'm not making fun of you, just... it's kinda silly, yeah? Also, I want to usseeee theeeesseee." She held up a palmful of the small treasures, glittering in multiple colors and leaving it looking like she was holding rounded fire.
"I get it." Anesh said, casually petting Ganesh who was currently eating his own orb for the night. "It's hard to resist. Who wants to go first?"
"Well, I've not got many to go through, so, me?" JP asked. Everyone nodded at him, even Alanna, who was practically bouncing in her chair to use her own. "Alright. Let's see then." He started deliberately breaking them open with even handed bursts of pressure.
[+3 Skill Ranks : Investment Banking]
[+1 Skill Rank : Culture - British - Game Shows]
[+1 Skill Rank : Mountain Biking]
[+1 Skill Rank : Drive - Hovercraft]
[+1 Skill Rank : Repair - Vacuum Cleaner]
He reported his outcomes to the others, and Anesh did his now solemn duty of recording everything. "Esoteric, I guess, but otherwise I'm kind of happy with this." JP said. "I could see myself using at least one of these in real life."
"Which... one?" Alanna asked suspiciously. "Are you rich enough for investment banking?"
"What? No. Well, I mean, maybe." He tucked his stacks of money into his coat pocket. "But I meant fixing the vacuum when it breaks. I thought that was obvious?"
"I would have said the biking one." Alanna shrugged. "Anyway! My turn!" She excitedly burst out, her words sitting comfortably in the still air of the office. Anesh made a 'go ahead' gesture with a smile at her, and without any aplomb, she just slammed her whole handful of orbs down onto the table.
[Certification Added : Fiduciary]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Cartography]
[+1 Emotional Resonance Rank - Hope]
[+1 Skill Rank : Criticism - Film]
[+1 Skill Rank : Teaching]
[+1 Skill Rank : Construction - Roofing]
[+1 Skill Rank : Falconry]
[+2 Skill Ranks : Dewey Decimal System]
[Shell Upgraded : Comfortable Arm Speed Threshold +8m/s]
[+1 Skill Rank : Math - Mental Addition]
Alanna raised her eyebrow in curiosity at the notice from the purple, and started moving her arm back and forth while she told the others what she'd gotten. It turned out, a human could whip their arm at a pretty fast speed already, though not without starting to strain the muscle from stopping it. Alanna, though, was no longer bound by the same physical restriction. She didn't have any extra speed by default, but when she put effort into it? Her arm became a blur, moving so fast that JP couldn't track it as he watched her start to practice moving while Anesh took notes. She started throwing punches, and discovered it worked both ways, too. Her jabs turned lightning fast; still needing effort to accelerate, but no longer strictly bound by physical laws. "This is so unbelievably cool." She informed them.
JP couldn't help but let slip a wry, "You don't say?" as she continued shadowboxing. Shaking his head, he looked over to Anesh. "What about you? Your turn now."
Anesh finished writing and gave a quick nod with a his own eager grin. "I'm saving the blues, obviously. I'll try back at the flat to turn something into a thing-that-breaks-physics." One by one, he went through his orbs. Only a few yellows, but he'd also gotten the other purple, and he was thrilled to try it.
[+1 Skill Rank : First Aid - Splints]
[+1 Skill Rank : Cooking - Recipes - Pasta]
[+1 Skill Rank : Music - K-Pop]
[Shell Upgraded : Fast Reaction Time -.8 Seconds]
[+1 Emotional Resonance Rank : Fury]
"That's... strange." He said. "I didn't use a red, did I?" Anesh asked his audience. He filled them in on what he'd gotten, and Alanna shrugged.
"Sometimes the blues and oranges also gives skills, right?" She asked without slowing her motions, still getting used to her newfound speed. "It's just like that. Only... infuriating."
Anesh groaned. "Oh my god, go home." He sarcastically threw the words at her. "Dave, you're last. Go... ahead..." Anesh looked over at where Dave was delicately putting the finishing touches on his little creation; sticky note wings adorning the frame of what looked like a mutant snake-bat made of office supplies. "Dave, what?"
"Oh! I wanted to see if this worked." Dave said, looking up from his arts and crafts project. "James told me Ganesh was originally just a normal drone, so I wanted to see if I could make a pet too."
"I didn't make..." Anesh stopped himself. "No, you know what? Have fun. You do you."
JP looked at the thing on the table. "What is it? It looks like half a dragon."
"It is! I call it a pendragon, since James also told me that puns are a mandatory tradition." Dave replied smugly. Without waiting, or really thinking about it, he took the three yellow orbs he'd collected from his loot picks, and dropped them onto the creation like a farmer scattering seeds.
Anesh wanted to tell him it wasn't going to work. Alanna wanted to tell him it was a pretty silly idea. And JP was just curious as to how this was going to go. But not one of them, save maybe Dave himself, expected the orbs to just phase into the creature, and for it to shake itself off and perk up its now quite flexible pen head.
"Holy shit." Alanna said, wide eyed.
"Hey, it worked! Hey tiny friend!" Dave said, holding out his hand, palm up.
The pendragon, and it did look a bit like a dragon, shivered a bit. It's body was a pair of pens, clipped together, with one of them coming to a point for it's head, which was capped. A set of three pairs of tiny eyes opened along the pen cap, peering up at Dave for a second as it got used to its new life. It had a 'tail', that was really just another pen, this one uncapped and flowing to a smooth point, and flexible as a serpent. The wings that radiated out from the back of it were also held on with a gator clip, and were made up of pen-bones taped together, spreading brightly colored sticky-note wings.
As they watched, it solidified. The materials becoming more... real. Less haphazard, and more tightly linked.
It sniffed Dave's palm, before looking around at its surroundings. Then it cawed, *loudly*, and made everyone jump in shock before it hopped onto Dave's hand and started poking at his arm.
"She likes me!" Dave said. "Can I take her ho..."
"No!" Anesh said. "Ahem. No. No, sorry. And we do have to leave soon. I didn't really expect that to work. But she'll be safe here with Ganesh and Rufus. Right, you two?"
Rufus made an assent gesture, but Ganesh was rigid, staring at the new little creature. He wasn't happy about it, but if Anesh asked him, well, he'd get over it. But that thing gave him the creeps.
"Okay Dave. Any other orbs?" Anesh asked, checking their timer.
Dave did have a couple more, which he used quickly, wanting to get to their customary after-delve dinner.
[+1 Skill Rank : Sewing]
[+1 Emotional Resonance Rank : Surprise]
"Wut." He asked flatly.
"What?" Anesh prompted.
"That's what I'm asking. What's the point of being surprised easily?" Dave asked, relaying his gains.
Alanna, thinking quickly, threw a sudden and absolutely unexpected punch toward Dave. He gave a startled screech, but already had his hands up to block. Alanna still could have hit him, had she not stopped her fist, but the blast of adrenaline flowing through Dave's blood felt, to him, less erratic and jittery, and more just empowering. He didn't even have that leftover bitter taste in his mouth.
"So?" Alanna asked, seeing Dave's expression shift from startled to confused to thoughtful.
"Oh man, that's weird. It feels, like, correct? Wow. You guys should try this." He tried to explain, badly, the feeling of being connected to how he felt.
Anesh snorted, and JP just held up his hand. "I'll pass." JP said. "Now, dinner? Lunch? Brunch? What time is it?"
"I mean, still 3:44..." Anesh told him.
His friend corrected. "I meant to say, how long have we been awake, in here?"
"Seven-ish hours. We really should go." Anesh said. "Please. Let's just deal with this stuff next week, okay?"
They packed up, bagging the rest of the loot, leaving most of their gear to sort later. Anesh wasn't trying to rush them, it was just that he was totally trying to rush them. And while he would have loved to have had more time to say goodbye to Ganesh, he had to get by with a quick "Please try to make friends, and don't off the new kid." Before he ushered the other three out the door.
James was still in the hallway when they got out, and he looked behind him as they arrived. "Hey. How'd it go?"
"Dave made a dragon." Alanna told him.
There was a moment of quiet, and held laughter.
Then James smiled. "Cool!"
He felt like there wasn't going to be anything else in the world that could sum up how the dungeon made him feel any better.
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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!